The Importance of Play

with Sharifa Oppenheimer

From the Spring 2011 Issue of Rhythm of the Home. A worthwhile discussion on why play, both indoors and out, is so critically important for kids.

Through Play the child creates herself.

Play is an amalgamation of alchemy and science, giving the child not only a magic wand, but also a powerful tool of experimentation. Here, in play, the child mixes a potent brew of their daily experiences as well as their wishes and dreams. Daily experiences are played — though not only in order to understand them, but also to change and transform them, and thereby change and transform the child. Any timid child who, in imaginative play, has built a little fort behind the couch, covered it with dark blankets and faced the terrors of the night, emerges from this game as someone new. A little ruffian who is set the task by a playmate to “look after the baby until I am back from the store” has a softer look in the eye upon his friend’s return. It is not unusual in my classroom for the boys to one day become intrigued by the games of domesticity often played by the girls. (Remember, gender identification is a major task for the four-year-old, and so each year our classroom experiences many births.) The civilizing influence of domestic life in the dress-up corner is a delight to behold.

Children also use creative play as a way to unravel life’s challenging experiences. A new baby in the family, a move across the country, a death of a grandparent; all become themes the child can work through again and again. What is this feeling I have? How can I express it? How do I make sense of it? How can I regain balance? If parents and teachers are sensitive to the child’s needs in these difficult times, we can dovetail with the child’s natural imperative to play. We can offer them curative stories in which, perhaps through animal characters, their own predicament is laid out for them to see, as well as a solution. These story images can act like seeds, informing their imaginative play and helping them explore new directions.

As children grow and their sphere of experience broadens, they are bound to interact with children whose behavior we parents wish they not emulate. Through play, the child has the opportunity to “try on” these less-than-sterling qualities, and if the play is well-supervised, to get the necessary feedback not only from the attending adults, but also from their playmates. Although it is challenging for parents, these opportunities are a rich source of growth for the child.

Let’s look for a moment at the meaning of “well-supervised play.” Do you remember when it was said “Mothers have eyes in the back of their head?” This is a great image for us to use, as we supervise our young children’s play. We want to be close enough that we can see and hear what is going on, but far enough away, and engaged in our own productive work, that the children do not feel smothered by our presence. Peripheral vision is the best. Sometimes when a game is heading in a non-productive direction, we can offer a new course by simply walking through the room, and sort of broadcasting into the air (like broadcasting seed into a field) “Oh, when I was a little girl we played that game too. Only we liked to…..” Slip the suggestion in through the back door. When supervising play we do need to “teach” social skills, the art of sharing and taking turns. But after the basics are taught, if we resist the urge to jump in at every infraction….if we take a breath and keep watching, keep listening, sometimes our children will surprise us with their insight and resiliency. All of this play is the work of creating a Self, and we, through the play environments we offer and the way we supervise, are intimately enmeshed in the work.

Let’s look at some other dimensions of Play

Play supports children’s physical development, particularly active outdoor play. Movement is the medium through which sense information becomes integrated, and the great wide world of the senses is food for our children’s brains. So, send your children outdoors, to freely move through the green world! Free, child-motivated play is the best for this whole-brain integration. In free play outdoors, all the muscle groups are engaged, and this whole-body movement helps all the varied regions of the brain to “communicate” with each other. Neural wiring is laid down in such active exploratory play. The life forces with which the child plays are the very same life-forces that grow and mature into thought. A well-integrated brain, with rich neural patterning, is the product of child’s play.

Play also supports children’s social learning. Children can explore the vast and nuanced realm of emotions within the context of play. It is not unusual in my classroom to have the children so completely “live-into” the emotions of the game that I need to stop myself and ask “Is it a game?” Sometimes I even have to ask the children “Is this part of the game?” Tears can be so real, or terror, or fury, or whatever emotion the game calls for. The child has the opportunity to rehearse these deep primal emotions in a safe and non-threatening way.

One very typical game-matrix children like and need to explore is the realm of power — who has the power , and how does one handle power? A ground rule I will articulate to the children as they play these games is “Everyone has to be having fun.” So, when the “captive” is calling for help from prison, I can check in with him: “Are you still having fun?” It amazes me how willing most children are to play out the balance of power, including being the underdog!

A critically important aspect of social learning is self-regulation, in which the child learns to moderate their impulses in the interest of the whole, so the game can continue. Erika and Nicholas Kristakis, at Harvard, have this to say:

“One of the best predictors of school success is the ability to control impulses. Children who can control their impulse to be the center of the universe, and — relatedly — who can assume the perspective of another person, are better equipped to learn. Psychologists calls this the “theory of mind”: the ability to recognize that our own ideas, beliefs, and desires are distinct from those of the people around us. When a four-year-old destroys someone’s carefully constructed block castle or a 20-year-old belligerently
monopolizes the class discussion on a routine basis, we might conclude that they are unaware of the feelings of the people around them.”

Lastly, human beings are myth-makers. From our earliest days in the cave, as we made myths and handed them on to the next generations through painted images, creating the story of our lives has been critical to who we have become. This is true not only on an individual basis, but true of humanity in our long trajectory of growth. The interplay between the miracle of language and the ability to create images has much to do with the mystery of our evolving humanity. Humans are able to not only create inner images of what already exists, but we can imagine, and thus we can create what has not been seen before. The seeds of this ability are fostered in the rich soil of creative play. It is this life-imbued creative imagination that always draws us toward the next step of growth.

Why is play in natural spaces, in green spaces, so very important?

In his book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv talks about the “loose-parts theory of creativity.” Not just for children, but for adults as well, the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery is enhanced dependent upon the number and kind of variables available for exploration in an environment. Waldorf Education has a motto for this loose parts creativity: “anything can be anything.” The best toys in a play situation are the ones that allow for the highest creativity and inventiveness. Early Childhood teachers accomplish this in the classroom by bringing “toys” from the natural world indoors: baskets of seashells, pine cones, good sticks, quartz stones and seashells line the toy shelves.