Thursday, February 04, 2021

Their Play is Not Evidence That They are Fine


We've all seen recordings of children playing in refugee camps and in war zones. In Peter Gray's book Free to Learn, he tells about the games Jewish children played even in concentration camps. They were games of survival, for the most part, like challenging one another to touch an electrified fence, but they were games and it was play. Children play with or without toys. They play with or without freedom. They play alone and together. They play when afraid. They play when they're sad. They play when they're confused.

We point to the irrepressibility of childhood play as evidence of the resilience of children, and they certainly are resilient, but we make a mistake when we point to their play as evidence that they are "fine."

Children don't play because they are fine: they play because play is how children instinctively process (or, in other words, learn about) the world around them. I watched children who could only have been frightened and confused (because we were all frightened and confused) fly their toy airplanes into block towers over and over in the weeks after 9/11. My daughter was part of a classroom of three-year-olds who spent days playing "earthquake," yelling and ducking under tables as they had been compelled to do during a real one. Play is not evidence of joy and happiness. Play is not evidence of being fine. Their play, even under the best of circumstances, is how children attempt to answer their own questions and explore their own emotions about what is going on in their world. The only conditions under which children don't play is when they are very sick or when they are in isolation.

A child psychiatrist friend once told me that he keeps a doll house in his office because he learns far more from troubled children by playing with them than he ever can through talking alone. So yes, when young children play, they are demonstrating resilience, but they are not necessarily showing us they are fine.

Several friends have told me stories of their children's play during this time of isolation. One mother told of her five-year-old whose babies are constantly falling sick and being taken away from their mommy to the hospital. Some get better, but some die. Another tells of her sons who are chasing one another around the house pretending to have poisonous breath. Yet another has been wearing his superhero costume to violently punch throw pillows that he's named "Coronas."

Under normal circumstances, when everyone is busy facing their own personal, private, and familial travails, figuring out exactly what any individual child is processing can be a next to impossible thing to puzzle out, even for professionals. But during times like these, times when the questions, the anger, the fear, and the confusion are virtually universal, the way children use play to process their experiences becomes far more clear to us. So yes, our children are resilient. They are processing strange times, they are doing exactly what they ought to be doing, and I have no reason to believe that most of them won't one day be fine, but right now they are sad, frightened, weary, and confused. Their play is not evidence that they are fine, it is evidence that they are doing their part in the hard work we all have to do right now.

If we want to do what is best for children, and ultimately our world, child's play should be the work of schools as they re-open.

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