In A World of Their Own – the features of immersive play


If you ever have the opportunity just to observe some of the youngest learners in school playing together, make sure you take it. It remains a constant source of fascination and wonder for me to see children immersed in play.

I was lucky enough to work with Reception or Foundation classes in my second year of teaching, when I was planning and teaching ICT lessons across the full primary range – and when some of these youngsters used to think I lived in the computer suite. (Ha! “computer suite” – showing my age!) I was also providing cover for staff and so might be in Year 6 in the morning and then doing phonics sessions with Foundation in the afternoon.

A good few years later I took up a new role as Deputy Principal in a school and taught for a while in the Foundation 2 class. I still recall the experiences and smiles I had during those times with great fondness. And I got to witness that immersive play that is so wonderful.

Nowadays I see George, my 8 year old son, immersed in his play, either with his friends or simply on his own. It is a wonder to behold and something that we slowly see less of. The reason I think that I find it so interesting is that it flies in the face of what adult life is so typically about, immersive play doesn’t happen within those rules and challenges the typical constraints adults might see or hold.

The Edges

Yesterday I wrote about the importance of constraint, and healthy constraint at that, in our design of learning. I described how some resources create an artificial line that children don’t go over or how time might restrict what we do. When children are truly immersed in play the edges of their play seem invisible.

It is not simply the timeless nature of immersive play but also the way that physical barriers, and even the rules of physics, become non-existent. They are changed, thwarted and ignored. Superpowers ON! Groups of toys suddenly are thrust together and the props of the play become varied and limitless – the play things even become augmented themselves changing in the mind of the young authors of this new reality.


When you observe this powerful type of play, a total immersion takes hold. Children get caught up in their play, they lose track of time. They don’t worry about what has gone before or what is next – they don’t think about the to-do list or their worries. When children are safe and immersed in their play, they are wholly present. (There is lots to read about this type of Flow state and the positive impact it can have on learning or the creative process.)


One other curious feature of immersive play is when play overlaps with others. A complete imaginary state bumps into another, children play together seamlessly co-constructing something that is completely imaginary. They negotiate and choose and build together under what seem to be a silent set of rules encoded deep inside them. The social aspect of immersive physical play just feeds the imaginations at work and you see worlds evolve and collapse, characters develop and disappear in quick succession.

All of these beautiful, natural instinctive behaviours might be summed up in this lovely quote:

Children have neither past nor future, they enjoy the present, which very few of us do.

– Jean de la Bruyere

Now of course immersive play is not simply the bastion of the young learner, but perhaps we have to try just that little bit harder to build and collapse those worlds as easily.

What do you see as the signals of immersive play? When do older students and adults get the opportunity for such wholly present experiences?

Tom Barrett

Tom is a writer, speaker and consultant. He has been sharing his thoughts on teaching, learning, curiosity and creativity on this blog for over 10 years. Drinking coffee and writing would be his idea of a perfect day.

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1 year 8 months ago

I recently watched a large group of 1-7 year olds negotiating space in an indoor play area for 3 hours. They never ran into the little ones, quickly came to the aide of someone who fell and participated in an ongoing negotiation of what will we do next even though children in the group spoke several different languages. Every inch of space was used several times in different narratives by the groups of older children while little ones moved independently. It was fascinating to watch and I didn’t see a single fight.