Learning through Play

Kerry stood in the living room, staring at the trail of toys that wound itself from the children’s room, down the hallway, and into the den. In the kitchen, a slippered foot protruded from the lower cabinet, a Barbie searching for her prince in shining armor in the most unlikely of places. The table, which was covered in a once elegant table runner, was now bare, the table runner having been appropriated for the Jacklin Family Olympics. Category: short sprint, since the judge ruled out the shot put throw. 

From the bathroom came the sounds of water splashing, and the squeals of children clearly having too much fun- a sign that her preschooler and first-grader were definitely up to something. Imagining all the work she would have cleaning up the mess before she could even think about stepping into her home office, Kerry let out a frustrated sigh.

Putting her hands on her hips, she marched into the hall bathroom, and shut off the water. “How many times do I have to remind you guys not to make a mess?” she declared, as she steered the two innocents out the back door and into the yard. As she closed the screen door, she added for good measure: “Now go play without getting yourselves into trouble or making a mess!”

For many parents, the scenario above is painfully familiar. No matter how much parents try to regulate things, children’s play is often loud, messy, boisterous, and constantly changing. One minute your seven and nine-year old are playing Power Rangers, while the next finds them tracking animal spoor on a wildlife reservation. It’shard for parents to understand the seemingly random behavior, the jumping from game to game, the arguments, and the mess that a “good play” engenders.

This is because for most adults, play is a form of entertainment. We engage in play in order to have fun, relieve stress, and forget about our everyday worries. Play for adults is the diametrical opposite of work, related only in the desire to have as much of the former and as little of the latter as we can get away with. For children however, play IS work. It not only helps them to learn about themselves and the world around them, but even more importantly, it helps them prepare for their future role as adult members who interact with and contribute to society.

In fact, the function of play is not unique to humans; all immature members of the mammal family engage in play. Kittens who attack a length of yarn, first stalking, then circling, and at last pouncing on it with a ferocious meow are in reality honing their hunting skills. Young male monkeys who play at “king of the hill” are really grooming themselves for the role of leader of their own colony. Although animals do possess many instincts, there is still quite a lot to be learned. The more complex the animal, the longer the period of immaturity, since there is a lot more to be learned.

Humans of course, have the lengthiest period of immaturity. And even though numerous instincts are already present at birth, it still takes quite a lot of time and practice to get things down pat. Fortunately, the job of learning how to manage in the world is not only fun and interesting to children, but also highly compelling. Watch a baby learning how to stand, or a toddler attempting to button his shirt, and you will be amazed at the amount of concentration he exhibits, and the sheer number of times he attempts the task before he even considers giving up. This is sometimes long after your patience wears thin, since he inevitably insists on doing it all by himself, usually when you are in a rush to get out of the door.

A young child shows great excitement at being able to do things by himself, and it is indeed fortunate that he does. Even a child of two has learned, through play, much more than his parents could even begin to think of teaching him. It is certain that if parents had to teach children the amount of information that a child naturally “picks up” (a misnomer, since the child spent a lot of time and effort perfecting that skill, and the learning of it was far from incidental) on his own, most of us would still be in diapers!  

As children grow, so does their ability to think and reason. When this occurs, you can see the child learn how to play with the world through her fantasies and dreams. This imaginary new world lets her find out more about herself. She can now try out what it’s like to be a mommy, stalking around the house, issuing orders to her dolls or younger siblings. Or she can regress to babyhood, and drink from a bottle, or suck her thumb.

This is why watching children play can often be quite insightful, helping those around them understand what is going on inside the child, even if he is unable to verbalize it in words. Of course, you should never judge a child simply from one or two observations, just as you would not want to be judged after meeting someone only once or twice. A true professional will use many sources of information, including parent and school reports, in order to determine if a child is in need of help.

Understanding that children’s play is an attempt to learn about the world around them, as well as be fully contributing members to the community in which they belong, can help you be more understanding of the seeming chaos surrounding play.

For example, when your two year old grabs a sopping wet sponge and starts swiping at the kitchen table, take the opportunity to teach him how to clean it properly. You may think he is too little, but he will get better with practice if you break down the activity into small steps. Be consistent on showing him how to do it the right way; it may be simpler to just let him “play around,” but this is ineffective and not what he really wants.

If you see that despite your best efforts he insists on doing it a different way, it is quite likely you have misinterpreted what his real need was. Perhaps he is squeezing out the water from the sponge on the floor because he’s really more interested in playing with water than cleaning up.

The most important thing to remember when involving yourself in children’s play is to lighten up! Judging, directing, or imposing your own expectations on how or what your children should play will quickly turn your show into a one-man act.