Thursday, November 14, 2019

How To Change The Games Children Play

In the days following the horrors of 9/11, several of the children at our daughter's preschool began to fly toy airplanes into block towers, over and over. They were clearly, through their play, processing the events. Every day, children are doing this as they play, preparing themselves in one way or another for the world they perceive awaits them. Hunter-gatherer children tended to play games of hunting and gathering. Contemporary children play games of housekeeping or driving cars or shopping.

Sometimes the "purpose" of their play is obvious to us, even if it isn't conscious on their part. The girl who plays hospital games in the weeks after her own visit to the emergency room obviously isn't telling herself that she needs to "process," but she is driven to it nevertheless, and it shows up in her freely chosen activities. Perhaps more often, however, the child's "purpose" isn't as evident, leaving thoughtful adults to ponder since the children themselves cannot tell us. If you ask a child who is, for instance, playing superhero, why he is drawn that particular game, he's likely to respond, "Because it's fun!" which is likely true even if it's not the whole story. Most of us would agree that there is something about being powerful or masculine or protecting others at the bottom of this type of play.

Some argue that a child playing superhero is just imitating something he's seen on TV and that if we took away his access to the boob tube he would stop playing the game. Maybe, but that doesn't explain why even the children I've taught who don't have television often play similar types of power games, even if they call themselves something else, like "bad guys" or "firefighters." No, the fact that this type of play comes up year-after-year, mostly among boys, tells me that they are not merely aping media messages, but are rather seeking to understand or practice something deeper that they don't just want, but need to understand, or for which they must practice. I would make the same assertion about girls, and it's mostly girls, who play princess games: we might personally reject the cult of feminine beauty, but the ubiquity of this sort of play across the years tells us that it is something that is "important" to process or practice or understand.

When we see "violent" games, when we see games based on superficial beauty, it's tempting for some of us to try to put a lid on it, or to steer children away from it, or to somehow create environments in which this sort of play doesn't emerge. As a young parent, I misguidedly and half unconsciously attempted to raise our daughter as a "tomboy," dressing her in overalls, buying her Hot Wheels, taking her to sporting events. I'll never forget the day as a two-year-old when she came across a heavily bejeweled princess crown at a friend's house, popped it on her head, looked me in the eye, and said, "You don't know what girls do," then proceeded to wear a crown, daily, for the next three years.

I see the same phenomenon happening these days with technology and smart phones in particular. Almost every school in America has instituted limitations on their use. The nation of France has recently outright banned children under 15 from using their phones at school "amid fears that students were becoming too dependent on and distracted by their smartphones." I have no doubt if given the choice, most school-aged children would chose their phones over the adult-directed curriculum from which they are being "distracted." What's happening on their phones is, from their perspective, much more important. And as to becoming dependent? Look around. The whole world is becoming dependent. The kids are just trying to process, understand or practice for the future, just as those kids flying toy airplanes into block towers were trying to make sense of the real world events that had come into their lives.

I'm not arguing that we should allow children access to new technology willy-nilly or that there is nothing we can do about violent games or beauty games. What I am saying is that children will always show us the future, as they perceive it, through their play. And children are incredibly adept at seeing through our envision-a-better-world smokescreens to zero in on what skills, habits, and knowledge they will need to live in the real world, and then to set out to understand or practice or process it, often to our chagrin. In one sense, when children play, they are holding up a mirror. If we don't like what we see, it's on us to make changes, both personally and societally. We will know if we've succeeded only when the children change the games they play.

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