Playing our way to Wellbeing

published 10 May 2021 by Marilyn Anderson in Practice category with 0 comments

By Anne Laney, Practice Manager

There are many studies on the importance of playfulness in adults and all recognise that all social connections can be strengthened and deepened through unstructured creative interactions. There doesn’t necessarily need to be any focus or goal to the interaction and it is often the case that the most satisfying occur when there is no reason other than enjoyment. 

This article is drawn from the Practical Playfulness workshop presented at the Us in a Bus Conference “Intensive Interaction and Emotional Well-Being” held in December 2015 and in it we will consider why Playfulness is important in all our lives and especially in our work with people with profound and multiple learning and other disabilities. We will propose that Intensive Interaction and Playfulness work exceedingly well together and offer an excellent way of establishing and extending motivating and joyful connections with those we work with. We will explore the perceived barriers to being playful and hopefully offer reassurance that these perceptions are unfounded. 

What does “being playful” really mean?

Playfulness is about the WAY we play rather than WHAT we are playing. It is an “experimental frame of mind”, exploring objects, ideas, concepts, words or roles (Judy Denziloe, work on Playful Practice). 

Being playful means…

Being spontaneous. You must notice and respond quickly to what’s happening within an interaction. You must “think on your feet”.

Being expressive.You must use your face, body, voice (either or all three) dramatically and freely.

Having fun.You must be relaxed. Laugh. Smile. 

Being creative. You need to be confident. To be relaxed and to not be limited by “what usually happens!”

Being “silly”. Silliness is sometimes viewed as derogatory. Instead, explore your silliness, because it means you have the ability to embrace the unexpected, share humour and find the “funny” in everyday things. 

What are the most valuable aspects of playfulness?

It provides a loose framework within which all of the following are possible and likely.

  • Freedom, Independence, Exploration, Choice
  • Communication (facial expression, gesture, body language, voice)
  • Social Interaction
  • Imagination and creativity
  • It’s open ended, client led
  • Fun, satisfaction, pleasure
  • Taking risks which lead to increased self-confidence and self esteem 

Why do we play?

  • To feel challenged
  • To learn
  • To create
  • To lose ourselves in pleasurable activity
  • To experience joy and fun
  • To explore competitiveness
  • To explore cooperation
  • To connect to and with others

What are the perceived barriers to playfulness? 

Being playful undoubtedly comes more easily to some than others and the following is by no means an exhaustive discussion of fears we all experience at certain times about our practice as professionals. It does perhaps however illustrate our main concerns about playful practice. 

Embarrassment at being observed.

This is always tricky, especially if there is an element of “justification” or “explanation” expected from us. It can make us feel self-conscious and lead to a pressured environment which makes playfulness especially hard. Hold in your head why you’re doing what you’re doing and be prepared to explain this if asked. For example, be ready to offer information such as…

“I noticed that Charlie really smiled when I got my words muddled just now and I wondered what would happen if I did it on purpose” 


“Charlie seems to enjoy being pushed over bumpy ground in his chair. I’m trying to recreate the experience by jiggling his chair. I’m counting to three first because it builds his anticipation of what I think is a pleasant experience and it prepares him. I’m giving him the final “ok” command by waiting for him to twitch his leg/blink/vocalise/smile/look at me (etc) before I jiggle”.

Fear of being perceived as unprofessional or inappropriate

The experience of Us in a Bus over twenty-five years has suggested that, in general, the people who are important in our client’s lives (care managers, home managers, CQC inspectors, family members) would rather the people to whom we offer a service have the opportunity to form strong, social connections based on mutual trust, enjoyment and which build confidence in communication and self-expression; than for instance, having access to activities which on the face of it are entirely appropriate but that have little real meaning to someone other than fulfilling a generalised “presence in the community”. If playful practice offers opportunities for mutually shared, pleasurable experiences with the control firmly in the service users hand, to consider this unprofessional or inappropriate seems fairly disingenuous.

Environmental barriers.  Psychological barriers.  Physical barriers.

We must not underestimate the impact of these other potential barriers to being playful. If the space we are in is too hot/cold; if the television is on; if there are too many people; if someone is tired, angry, sad; or their physical disability is such that it restricts the ease of interactions, playfulness may be much more of a challenge. The advice from Us in a Bus is, don’t force it…but don’t’ give up either. 

Playfulness and Intensive interaction

Working from the premise that those of you reading are likely to have a working understanding of Intensive Interaction you won’t have failed to notice the similarities between II and Playful Practice. 

Both explore

  • Social and emotional interaction
  • Mutual engagement, sharing experiences, sensations and time
  • Joyfulness
  • Knowing the sensation of “I’m good to be with”
  • The satisfaction arising from communicating effectively with another human being
  • Increased desire and ability to be with another person
  • Build self-esteem and diminish anxiety

(Nind and Hewett. Access to Communication 1994)

In our experience the warmth and depth of our relationships with those we work with is enhanced dramatically when we are able to be playful within our interactions. We believe the principles of Intensive Interaction, the mirroring and echoing, the responsive communication, lay the foundations for the connections but the fun, the creativity and “silliness” are what fast tracks them and strengthens the joyfulness of the relationship. Playfulness represents a real addition to our, in Janet Gurney’s words, “toolbox” from which we choose when building relationships with those who find this a challenge.

Successful Playfulness requires that you…

  • Embrace repetition
  • Take the lead from your partner
  • “Don’t force it”
  • Remain open to new ideas
  • Laugh easily
  • Are not afraid to be seen having fun.

We all play, in different ways with different people. If we agree that playfulness is experimental, as Judy’s quote at the beginning of this article suggests, then we must accept that it is an essential component of lifelong learning for us all because knowledge is acquired through experimentation at the edge of experience. 

The Care Act 2014 says, in Section 1, part one “Promoting individuals wellbeing”,

“The general duty of a local authority, in exercising a function under this Part in the case of an individual, is to promote that individual’s well-being”.

It goes on to define Wellbeing for the purposes of the document and state clearly that Local Authorities MUST have regard for this when providing care. 

Taking into account how we believe Playfulness combined with Intensive Interaction promotes Wellbeing, and linking this to the Care Act 2014, can we finish by saying (tongue in cheek)…

Go and be playful. It’s the law!”

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Published by

Marilyn Anderson

10 May 2021

Linking Lives

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