Just Playing

By Susan Wight

Play is children’s work and yet it is curiously undervalued in our society. Many adults fervently believe that there can be no ‘educational value’ in something that children choose to do. Their concern about home educating without a curriculum is that children might ‘just play’. Adults are sceptical that play, which looks to them like merely a pleasant pastime, can really be the most stimulating thing children do. Development experts are actually alarmed by the lack of time and interest devoted to unstructured child’s play in modern culture. “Everything about children’s lives these days seems to be so serious, and play looks like it’s not valuable enough,” says Jane Healy, psychologist, educator and author of Endangered Minds: Why Our Children Don’t Think and What We Can Do About It.

Many children, locked into a relentless round of school, homework and extra-curricular activities, are just not given enough time to play. Studies by the University of Michigan have found that since the late 1970s, children have lost 12 hours per week in free time, including a 25 percent drop in play and 50 percent drop in unstructured outdoor activities. Meanwhile, time in structured sports has doubled. In addition, the amount of homework increased dramatically between 1981 and 1997 – the amount given to six-to-eight-year-olds tripled during that time.

“I just don’t think parents – or even policy makers – understand that children’s spontaneous, self-generated play has tremendous potential to actually enhance brain development and increase kids’ intelligence and academic ability,” says Jane Healy. “Learning the multiplication tables and the alphabet are very important but those skills need to reside inside a mind that has been expanded by the imaginative and joyous exploration of our environment and the possibility that it offers for fun.”

Denying children the opportunity for plenty of self-directed play, Healy says, short-circuits a lot of their development. “That’s because play is the way that children work out their emotional issues, their fears, their anxieties. It’s the way they develop a self, a way they develop a sense that they are important people who have ideas to share and who can get along with other people.”

Play is accepted in babies and small children as a valid pastime. As Penelope Leach points out in Baby and Child: “For a small child there is no division between playing and learning; between the things that he or she does ‘just for fun’ and things that are ‘educational’. The child learns while living and any part of living that is enjoyable is also play.”

But when children are aged three or four, our society encourages parents to think that ‘guided play’ is superior to free play. The devaluing of children’s own natural and inquisitive play begins here. For an increasing number of children it is curtailed even earlier in childcare centres where their play is limited by the unvaried nature of the daily environment and routine. Kindergarten teachers are reporting that some children seem to have forgotten how to play. Released from the building for outside time, they simply run backwards and forwards in the yard. Encouraged by staff to begin a game in the sandpit, the abandon it as soon as the adults leave the area. Perhaps the point is that they have spent so much time in structured activities and inside that they have a need to run until they have had enough running. They would then naturally move on to other forms of play. Jan Faull, a child development and behaviour specialist, says that pre-schoolers who spend more time in dramatic play are more advanced not only in general intellectual development but also in their ability to concentrate for long periods of time.

Once a child has passed five or six years the common perception of play moves swiftly and irrevocably from an efficient way of learning to something physically beneficial but not considered a method of learning.

Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Rousseau and Dewey all agreed that play was important in the education of children and Piaget’s theory of play was closely bound to his account of the growth of intelligence. Modern teaching practice therefore seeks to use play as a teaching tool, but adults predetermine what is to be learnt and design the game in order that the learning might be swallowed much as a sugar-coated pill. A.S. Neill heartily disapproved of such tactics. “Even the Montessori system, well-known as a system of directed play, is an artificial way of making the child learn by doing,” he said. He believed that children should be permitted to play as much as they wished. “The function of the child is to live his own life – not the life his anxious parents think he should live, nor a life according to the purpose of the educator who thinks he knows what is best. All this interference and guidance on the part of the adults only produces a generation of robots.” Summerhill critics feared that children permitted to choose between play and lessons would be lazy but Neill countered that he has never seen a lazy child. “What is called laziness is either lack of interest of lack of health. A healthy child cannot be idle; he has to be doing something all day long.”

Adults fear their children will be failures in life if allowed to play instead of doing lessons. They are anxious for learning to be demonstrated early in order that their children will gain and keep ‘an edge’ over other children. Play actually helps children both at the time and later in life. Neill was able to provide countless examples of the later success in life of ex-Summerhill children. He believed that much of their success and confidence in life was attributable to the fact that “As young adults they are able to face the realities of life without any unconscious longing for the play of childhood.” One former pupil of Summerhill who went on to university said, “The students make a hell of a row in classes, and it gets rather tiresome; for we at Summerhill lived out that stage when we were ten.”

John Holt pointed out that the essential requirement to allow children to learn in their own way is trust. Holt trusted children and respected their play. He believed: “A child has no stronger desire than to make sense of the world, to move freely in it, to do the things that he sees bigger people doing.” His early observations as a teacher showed him that allowing children to play with equipment enabled them to master it without being taught and that teaching was actually more likely to lower a child’s confidence and mastery of the same equipment. He quoted David Hawkins, Professor of Philosophy, who also found that children benefited from time devoted to free and unguided exploratory work with scientific equipment. Hawkins’ students rewarded him with a higher level of involvement and much greater diversity of experiments. He found that most of the questions which might have been planned for the equipment came up naturally. Discoveries were made, noted, lost, and made again.

Holt asserted, “Children are by nature smart, energetic, curious, eager to learn and good at learning” and that, therefore, “We can trust children to find out about the world, and that when trusted, they do find out.” He noted also that “with great subtlety and skill, as they play, they adjust to each other’s needs and feelings, respond from one second to the next to what the other says and does.”

Watching children play teaches us that they really are constantly learning. Children are, in a very real sense, like scientists discovering natural laws. As babies and as toddlers, children’s experiments gradually teach them rules which govern the behaviour of objects in the world. When they drop something, it falls down. Always down, never up. Long before they hear the word ‘gravity’, they discover its effects for themselves and come to expect that a dropped object will subsequently be on the floor. Play is learning and practising what they have learned. It is exploring and discovering. It stimulates their minds and their senses. It develops their thinking, their confidence and their independence. They construct, they draw, they dig and they exercise their bodies. The list could go on and on. In everything they do their skill level increases naturally. They learn to count toy cars, add blocks and divide dolls by the number of players. They learn to sort and classify, to identify and later read labels on their toys and games. The problem-solving in play forms habits of autonomous and cooperative learning.

Play also has emotional and social benefits.

They spend hours in imaginative play constructing make-believe worlds – sometimes alone, sometimes as a group. They play at shopping, camping, banking and visiting friends. Sharing, turn-taking, cooperation, teamwork and conversing increase as they work out the intricacies of the game. New information, vocabulary, knowledge and experiences are incorporated into their games constantly.

Re-enacting emotions helps children to understand their feelings and, according to Jan Faull, after engaging in pretend play involving emotions, children show an enhanced ability to empathise with the feelings of others. Children who spend lots of time engaged in imaginative play score higher on tests of imagination and creativity. Play is so necessary and valuable that child therapists encourage children to play in order to work through deep-seated problems.

Despite what the advertising industry would have us believe, a plethora of toys is not necessary for rich, imaginative, beneficial play. Children can use anything to hand for their games and, in some ways, the more expensive a toy is the more it limits the child’s play. Joan Almon, co-ordinator for the U.S. Alliance for Childhood, tells the story of two girls who were comparing their dolls. One girl has a talking doll and boasted, “My doll can say 500 words!” The other girl was holding an old-fashioned cloth doll and countered: “My doll can say anything I want her to say.” Almon fears, “we are creating culture that we think they need for their imagination, without realising that, in the process, we are stifling their imaginations.”

As children grow older their play evolves. They play long, complex, imaginative games which give them wonderful material for story-writing if they are so inclined. By contrast, school children whose play time is limited are often asked to write stories and don’t have that rich imaginative experience to draw on.

The older children become, the more anxious adults become about allowing them to spend a great deal of their time playing. Holt said, “One might feel… that play is fine for little children, and even the best thing for them, but that after a while they must outgrow it and learn more ‘serious’ or ‘adult’ ways of learning. This would be a great mistake. The fact is that in their play children are very often doing things very much like what adults do in their work. Like the economist, the traffic engineer, the social planner, or the computer expert, children at play often make models of life or certain parts of life, models they hope are a fair, if simpler, representation of the world, so that by working these models they may attain some idea of how the world works or might work or what they might do in it.”

For teenagers, time spent playing, apart from in organised sports, is seen as wasteful or frivolous. However, although play changes and the time devoted to it decreases, it remains important. A young man might enjoy playing with model aircraft. Testing and watching and designing by trial and error the best flying machine he can. Some aircraft industry may benefit from his play in the future but only if adults can give him the space, time and respect to work through what he needs to, solving problems as he goes, instead of dismissing what he is doing as unimportant.

Thomas Edison’s mum knew well enough that he liked messing around with lots of gadgets. She simply moved his equipment down to the basement so that he could continue uninterrupted.

The next time you begin to worry that your children are ‘just playing’ instead of learning, remember than play is exploration, discovery, research and experiment. Your children are testing theories, revising ideas – and always learning.


From Otherways issue 102 (2005)

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