Across the garden, on the other side of my neighborly wall, I can hear a young girl playing. There’s a lot of emphatic counting down, the odd shriek and wild splashing, despite the chilly and overcast weather.
Would you believe me if I told you she’s currently undertaking multiple, self-induced practical learning experiences that involves leadership, imagination, resilience, problem-solving, debate, and self-advocacy?
I can prove it with one quote: “Hey, boys! I’m going to go first this time. You follow me but be quick, the dragon is coming! Okay… 5,4,3,2,1.” Splash. Silence. Thud. “Ouch! My knee. But I’m good… Okay, Jesse also wants to play with us so we need a new game. Mom! Moooom, I’m cold now. I need a towel.”
Compare this scenario to three kids lined up silently at swimming school, diving in when the teacher commands and getting out when the whistle blows.
“One of the biggest problems with play is that adults tend to hijack it and tend to try and control play. Children are really the best judge of their own play.” – Irene Gunning, CEO, Early Childhood Ireland
There are a few reasons for this:
- Contemporary society and schooling are running a performance-based agenda that’s leading parents to believe that rather than have two children under five playing around the house, they should be grooming tiny adults.
- Grown-ups are painfully adept at linear, time-based, goal-orientated tasks based firmly in reality. We’re practical. We want to efficiently nurture our five-year-old straight into that Harvard AI program, if it’s the last thing we do between 3:20 p.m. and that 4:00 p.m. Zoom meeting.
- Our social selves are so well-trained at fitting in and delivering the goods, in every sense of the phrase, that many of us feel self-aware and embarrassed at the thought of being asked to dance, or draw, never mind play. What do you mean imagination? I have a mortgage and cholesterol.
The unintentional cost of all of this is that we’re depriving our children of one of the most vital, profound, and natural aspects of childhood development: unstructured play. In fact, 75 percent of kids aren’t playing enough, which is unfortunate given that Albert Einstein deemed “play is the highest form of research.”
More specifically: Play allows children to create and explore a world they can master, conquering their fears while practicing adult roles. As they master their world, play helps children develop new competencies that lead to enhanced confidence and the resiliency they will need to face future challenges. When play is allowed to be child-driven, children practice decision-making skills, move at their own pace, discover their own areas of interest, and ultimately engage fully in the passions they wish to pursue.
Do Try This At Home
If you’re feeling guilty, don’t. Rather feel relieved because encouraging and getting involved in creative, child-driven play looks like you doing a whole lot less in favor of just being.
The call is to stop pushing and start being present. Close your apps and re-open your mind by remembering how you played as a child.
Children have innate access to broad imagination, all you need to do is encourage it and then follow their lead. A simple shift from “how” to “what” is enough. Forgo the problem-based: “But how will you become a pilot?” in favor of the affirming, narrative building: “What will you call your plane?”
It is this kind of intricate shift in interaction that will foster and solidify the imperative life-skills of creativity, flexibility, problem-solving, and humor that thrive within a well-used, confident and nourished imagination.
“If you trust play, you will not have to control your child’s development as much. Play will raise the child in ways you can never imagine. Play is not a break from learning. It is endless, delightful, deep, engaging, practical learning. It’s the doorway into the child’s heart! Play is the shortest route between children and their natural calling.” – Vince Gowmon, Author
Playing It Forward
Can we reframe play as the work of the child and allow them the time and compliance they need to do their best work?
In many ways, we can’t afford not to. Creativity, critical thinking, and complex problem solving are being touted as three vital skills for the 21st century. Every one of these has its birthplace in the realms of playfulness and imagination.
Our in-flux world is already requiring immense adaptability, future-centric thinking, and creative solutions. Now, what’s more futuristic than imagining things that don’t yet exist? A girl entrusted to embrace the magic of her imagination will teach herself numerous things she needs to know. She just needs the time and encouragement to do so.
Written by Roxana Bouwer
Top photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels