If you ever get a chance, I hope you will read the work of Clark Moustakas. He was one of my greatest teachers. He wasn’t the energetic self-promoter like other pioneers , but his wisdom and clarity of thought seems obvious. He is a pioneer in play therapy a founder of Humanistic Psychology. He is also one of the kindest, most gentle and humble human beings I have known. He is wise. I studied play (sounds weird to “study” play) under him and other great teachers. Because I spent so much time with the topic, I’m very alarmed that it is disappearing in the lives of children. I am especially concerned that play is becoming limited in many of our schools. As my twins enter the first grade next week, I know that they will be playing less.
What is Play?
Early on, I struggled to find a satisfactory model or theory about why play therapy worked. Play had transformational properties. I knew it because I saw it. I saw some amazing things happen through play, but I still found it mysterious. I’ve learned a bit since then and I want to share it with you. First, I will confess that Lev Vygotsky and his followers and fans, e.g., J.P. Das, Laura Berk, A.R. Luria, etc., have had a great influence on my understanding of play. While Vygotsky wrote very little on play, he elevated it to the highest status in child development. Had he lived longer, he likely would have further documented his thinking. I’ll tell you some of what he said and maybe this will help you and the children you care about. Who cares about Vygotsky? Me and a growing number of others. He was almost universally thought a genius by his peers. Anyway, here are some insights I will offer from Vygotsky, my experience, and some very smart people.
Insight #1: Playing is NOT goofing off. It may look like it, but it is not. In the photo above, it may seem that my children are playing in our toy box. Wrong! Actually, they built a high-powered rocket ship replete with high-powered, state of the art rocket propulsion. I’m kidding. It’s a toy box. What I’m concerned with is what is happening in their little minds. (It was a sailboat anyway). They are learning, for example, how to separate a) thought from actions and objects and b) inhibiting impulsive actions in favor of self-regulation. That toy box contained the quality and essence of “boat”. Pick up Laura Berks and Adam Winsler’s excellent book “Scaffolding Children’s Learning” for a detailed discussion on this phenomenon. I’d add that they are learning to make a mess, but they pretty much have that down. I passed that gene on to them.
Insight #2: Children always behave beyond his/her average age and above his/her daily behavior. This is important. The fantasy play that emerges at the end of toddlerhood becomes a “leading factor in development” (cited in Berk, I’ll give you another reference below b/c, as I mentioned, I love her work). Important: Vygotsky is talking about cognitive development, you know, “thinking. But why? I’m worried that this post is becoming too academic for some, so can I just say again that it involves learning to think abstractly, separating thought from the external world? Here, we are observing that the child is exploring a world in a way that is ahead of his/her development. Imagination and abstract thinking are the very things that good students do in school!
Insight #3: Imaginative play helps children learn to control themselves. Say what? That doesn’t sound right, does it? How can that be? Shouldn’t children be practicing sitting still, like the school I remember, if they want to get good at it? Vygotsky noted that children continually act against immediate impulses during play.
Finally, Insight #4. There is no such thing as free play. I’ve hinted at this above. All play is rule based! How about when playing cops and robbers? The robber doesn’t make the arrest. I could go on. I can remember arguing with friends things like, “Hey! Batman can’t fly! You can’t do that!” when playing superheroes, for example. Even that game had rules.
When we factor in the use of language, the physical exercise, the warm feelings between friends, the arguing/resolution, and the fact that other creatures in the animal kingdom (I’ll admit that my kids are animals), I’m very worried that we would accept rote academic experiences as somehow more vital to our youngsters. Some adults even take away play as a method of punishment.
Still not persuaded?
Childhood play is crucial for social, emotional and cognitive development. Imaginative and rambunctious “free play,” as opposed to games or structured activities, is the most essential type. I know. I just said there is no such thing as free play. Let’s call it imaginative play. Free play just seems too trivial a term for these times.
Finally, Insight #5– Kids that do not play when they are young may grow into anxious, socially maladjusted adults. In her book entitled “Einstein Never Used Flashcards”, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek is unable to find any convincing evidence that academic acceleration offers any salutary effects by the time the child reaches 1st grade. A 2007 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics documents that play promotes not only behavioral development but brain growth as well. The University of North Carolina’s Abecedarian Early Child Intervention program found that children who received an enriched, play-oriented parenting and early childhood program had significantly higher IQ’s at age five than did a comparable group of children who were not in the program (105 vs. 85 points). Again, any advantages that the academic group had disappeared by first grade. Further, the children from the academic environments were more anxious and less creative than the children in the other group. http://bit.ly/609N8p
This isn’t just about raising healthy happy kids. On second thought, yes it is!
*** I recommend Laura Berk’s “Awakening Children’s Minds” for teachers and parents alike. It is one of the 10 or so books I read several times a year when I need to find my center.