Wednesday, August 24, 2016


Up until about the end of the Victorian era, the leading theory for why humans play was that it is a mechanism by which we release excess energy. Over the next few decades, however, people like John Dewey, Maria Montessori, Jean Piaget, and Lev Vygotsky began to take play seriously. Particularly important, although largely forgotten today, was a German psychologist named Karl Groos, a researcher who primarily studied play in animals. He was among the very first to investigate the usefulness of play, proposing that play had evolved as an instinct that allows animals to "practice" the skills they will need to thrive.

"The very existence of youth is due in part to the necessity for play; the animal does not play because he is young, he has a period of youth because he must play."

While we still hear echoes of the Victorian idea today (e.g., "The kids just need to burn off some steam"), those of us who work with children, and in particular those of us enrolling our children and teaching in play-based preschools have come to embrace not just the "necessity for play," but even the primacy of play as the most effective and efficient mechanism for learning. In other words, we take play seriously.

The downside for many of us, however, is that we take play seriously. Seriously.

Recent decades have seen a ramping up of the idea of "good parenting." The bookshelves and blogs are chock-a-block with advice and counsel, much of it contradictory. Intentions are nobel, of course -- Who doesn't want to be a good parent? But at the same time we've been left with as many questions as answers. I often wonder if this phenomenon doesn't have something to do with our contemporary habit of dispersing families far and wide: rare is the child whose grandparents live in the same zip code. Whereas prior generations of parents primarily relied on their own parents for day-to-day guidance and support, there is now a disconnect between generations, leaving a void for the books and blogs to fill, which is simply a less personal and more confusing way to learn anything.

I wonder too if the trend toward smaller families isn't partly in play here as well. There was a time when parents relied on older children to take on some of the basic childcare responsibilities, allowing them the opportunity to develop some of the foundational skills and habits of caring for the smaller humans. And I reckon the era of mass media, followed by our current one of social media, is also a factor in that we now know there is always something to worry about.

Whatever the case, it seems that there are too many of us who, in the quest to provide our children with an authentic play-centric childhood, worry that somehow we're doing it wrong. Are we hovering too much? Are we being negligent? Do we have too many toys or not enough or the wrong kinds? Are we over-scheduled or is my child missing out on opportunities? How do screens fit in? Do I play with my child and how? There are no play-based schools where I live, what can I do? Do I homeschool, unschool, become a pain in the side of the teacher or school board? How can I protect my kids' childhood?

In other words, we take play very seriously and it's making us crazy. It seems like almost every day I receive a missive from someone seeking my counsel. I do my best to help, but listen, I'm just making it up as I go along just like you. Indeed, it's all any of us are doing on any given day: it's the beauty of life. Anything else would be rote and we'd all die of boredom.

If there was one secret I would pass along about being with children it would be to just treat them like people without forgetting that you are a person too. Attend to their needs and feelings and ideas, but attend to yours as well. Relax, you can't fail, and if one day they wind up in therapy, pat yourself on the back; knowing when and how to ask for help is itself a sign of good mental health. At the same time you'll do it wrong no matter what you do, so just do it the way you do it. Play with them when you feel like it. Teach them the games you like to play or the hobbies in which you love to immerse yourself. If you don't have a hobby then for god's sake, find one. Tell them you don't have time when you don't have time, but don't be a jerk about it. As Kahlil Gibran wrote, "Your children are not your children," they are rather fellow human beings with whom you are journeying for a time. They are special because they are people, not because they are kids. Tell them you love them because as the French proverb says, "It's not enough to love, you must say it."

Play is serious business, but it's like love or happiness: it goes away when we take it too seriously. It's the work of childhood, but it's their work, not yours. Leave them to it, join them as a person, not a parent, and only when you feel compelled. When you have any questions about life, take some time to simply observe them in their play. That's where you'll find your answers. And most of all, know that the greatness of play is that it works whatever you do.

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Laura said...

What a clear and thoughtful summation of this paradox. There seems such a strong drive in our American culture to codify everything. EVERYthing. You have so clearly captured the tension between allowing children the space to live freely and openly as young people born with an inherent need to know, and our drive, on so many levels as a "early childhood professionals" to make sure environment/action/interaction is research based, quality assessed, developmentally appropriate and safety approved. Makes me nuts! Thank you for this, Tom.

Tricia said...

When my oldest child was a toddler, an wise woman with grown children told me: "The goal is not to raise your children so they never need therapy. The goal is to raise your children so they can recognize when they need therapy and pay for it themselves."