Will you play with me?

by Laura Gordon - July 22nd, 2013

The previously documented The Virtues of Dirt needs a follow up.  How did all the kids get so dirty in the first place? I will tell you how. They played.

Children are born to play.  Their brains are wired for curiosity and exploration and they satisfy these needs through play.  In fact, play is the single most important endeavor a child can engage in throughout the day.  Yes, of course, nourishment and sleep are important too. But there is something specific about play that allows a child to develop their minds and bodies like nothing else.  And the sad trend is, kids are playing less.

Why is it that play is taking a back seat to other outlets when it is so important, no vital, to a child’s development?  Why has the very nature of play itself changed?  Why are children no longer let loose in nature only to return when the street lights come on at dusk?  Are children spending too much time indoors because their parents are afraid for their safety (we all managed to grow up eating berries in the woods while wandering in and out of streams playing with frogs and the occasional garter snake)? Or are children simply more enamored with technology than trees?  The short answer is, yes.

The longer answer is more complicated but for many reasons, the notion of play has changed and in my humble opinion, not for the better.  Children need play in order to thrive.  They need unstructured moments, both indoors and outside, to explore materials and their environment to let their imaginations wander.  I remember quite vividly the woodworking table in my kindergarten room, well equipped with real scrap wood, real hammers, and real nails.  Sure, we all hit our own hands and got splinters from time to time but you know what?  We also managed to make some exciting creations while learning through cause and effect how to properly drive a nail into wood.  Not that I grew up to be a gifted carpenter, but I did learn how to figure out logistic problems with persistence and good ole’ trial and error.  Thank you woodworking 101.

I also learned about my environment by being immersed in it.  I wasn’t kidding about noticing the street lights at dusk and thinking I had to go home for dinner; learning responsibility and accountability was as simple as show up in time for dinner or go to bed hungry.  We built forts in the woods and made rules about who could enter (read: no stinky big brothers), developed a social hierarchy of who could be in charge of kick ball games (read: not the bossy little sister), and managed to blend all age groups into sprinkler fun, chalk drawing, hopscotch, or tag.  We used our science and math skills in setting up lemonade stands and stood proudly on street corners, with no shame, as we flagged down passersby for a cool drink.  No one cared if we used knives to cut lemons, or stood too close to the street when peddling our goods.  We were trusted not to cut off limbs or jump in front of cars.  Trust goes a long way in letting children explore through play.

What can day care providers do to ensure children are getting the benefits of play during the day?  This is the simplest answer of all: let them.  Provide the materials and the environment, both in the classroom and on the playground, and let them at it.  From the youngest infants to the oldest preschoolers, everyone can benefit from play.  As long as the teachers are actively engaged with the children, modeling how to play, the materials are secondary.  An expensive brightly colored rattle holds no more benefit than a recycled water bottle filled with dry beans.  A wide open playground with little more than some balls can create the backdrop for an elaborate game comprised of child-directed play and child-created rules.  The bottom line is this: let kids play and they will create scenarios, build cities, have fun, learn to work together, navigate certain safe risks, explore, compromise, and most of all, get dirty!