This article was first printed in The Mother Magazine in 2014 and is re-printed with kind permission.
There are mornings when I wake naturally, having fallen back to sleep after the bleeping of my husband’s alarm.
I open my eyes and listen. I can hear voices downstairs, the high pitched voices of my children immersed in the fantasy world of play. I wonder as I lie there listening, why is it that my daughter’s voice goes up an octave when she is fully engaged in playing?
Eventually I decide to get up. Everything has gone quiet, which is always a bad sign! I check my clock, 9am; I wonder how long they have been up.
I attempt to venture downstairs. The staircase is carpeted with soft toys. At the bottom of the stairs is a Scooby doo truck with various miniature figurines sitting inside waiting it seems, to go somewhere. As I walk into the sitting area, I notice other little ‘scenes’. The wooden dolls houses’ bathroom set is placed on the hearth, a tiny doll is having a bath. Nearby, the Sylvanian family children are in various states of undress. They have clearly been playing ‘dress up’ again!
I follow a trail of toilet roll from the sitting room into the dining room. There on the floor in front of me is Winnie the Pooh. His leg is wrapped up in toilet tissue. Mr Cuddles is nearby, he has at least a packet of plasters stuck all over his head. I breathe a big inward sigh. Another packet of plasters gone.
I gaze into the kitchen. All kinds of mischief has been going on in there it seems. The dog food is scattered all over the floor. There is a dining chair placed underneath the top cupboards. The cupboard doors are open. Rice Crispies and muesli are spilled all over the work top. Next to the fallen box of Rice Crispies are two saucepans with leftover milky cereal inside.
Lois strolls in from the garden and following my gaze says, ‘O’h sorry Mum, we couldn’t find the bowls’. Lois is quickly followed by her brother Tadhg, always hot on her heels. His face, neck and hands are covered in dirt. ‘Look mum!’ he says full of excitement, ‘I found Lollipop! She’s come back. I thought she had run away!’ I look in his hand, the one he is shoving in my face, to see Lollipop, his favourite garden snail. An image of Lollipop ‘running away’ pops into my head and I laugh out loud. ‘Tadhg’ I say, ‘come on, remember I don’t like snails inside, let’s take her back to the garden’.
As I step through the back door to the garden I am hit squarely in the face with a broom and can see that my washing line has been rigged up between the bin and drainpipes. ‘YES!’ they chorus, ‘it worked!’
There is so much science behind the positive benefits of play, but science was not the reason I gave my children years of uninterrupted play, it was more an instinct. I felt that hours of proper play, directed only by the children themselves, was essential to their healthy growth and well-being.
When adults interrupt or structure play, it becomes something else. To my mind, there is nothing quite as rude as an adult joining in a kid’s game and then dictating it. Sadly, we adults have lost the art of total uninhibited play. That is not to say we cannot ‘play’ with our children but it should be remembered that play is the one area in their lives which children feel they have genuine control over.
When my son started playschool at the age of 3, we were both excited. His bag was packed and placed by the front door an hour before we had to leave. Within two sessions, he had worked out that playschool was not what he expected. Unfortunately he found the noise levels unbearable and most of the free play was actually adult initiated. It was carefully orchestrated to achieve a particular learning goal. Instead of simply being allowed to play with the Play Doh in an open-ended way for example, he had been expected to divide it up into different colours or make healthy toppings for Play Doh pizzas.
Whilst some structured play can be beneficial and a great way to learn, children of all ages need genuine free play, no adults required!
My son, once so full of enthusiasm for a morning at playschool, had begun to hide under his bed when it was time to leave. It took me four excruciating months of peeling him off the doorframe of the school and watching him banging on the window as I walked away, to understand that taking him out of playschool was not about giving in to him as the teacher warned me daily, but in fact allowed him to have quality play experiences inside our home, outdoors, with family and friends and was actually far more beneficial and in line with his individual developmental needs.
Play has been the backbone of my children’s early childhood. It has given them peace and has allowed them time to grow without constant prodding and pushing. They have also had many times of fun and laughter when playing with friends, and this has helped them negotiate the unwritten codes of human social interaction.
In our household, we do not separate play and learning. Play does not need to cease so that learning can begin. Watch closely and you may be glimpsing a child’s future. Society tends to see play as a respite from more serious ‘work’, but play is far more complex in nature than pure enjoyment. Though it should be fun in essence, it can also unravel for the individual, the very purpose of their life.
Play can look very different in each child. Whereas my daughter for example, has played for hours at fantasy games, creating life and soul in inanimate objects, my son historically, has been more likely to play with real life objects such as sticks. He has a huge and ever growing stick collection and they are important to him. I remember once taking some of his sticks for use in a group learning session to make aboriginal ‘journey sticks’. He was distraught that I could be casually handing out his sticks! It just didn’t occur to me at the time that this would be a problem, but on reflection I realised that I was literally giving away his toys.
My son also spent years making ‘junk’ models. Everything was stuck together with a serious amount of tape. The models never resembled anything I could actually pinpoint, but there was no doubt in my mind that he was doing purposeful work.
He still makes ‘junk’ models, and these days they are more recognisable robots and so forth, but they all have unusual functions. He also builds lots of traps. He has a very curious mind and regularly asks questions about how things work. I can look back and see how this interest began with a ball of paper and lots of selotape and see that my instinct not to interfere was right.
Both my children have a deep interest in nature and animals. For over two years, they have been caring for our garden snails and many hours of play has been centred around these slimy creatures. It has been an enduring fascination of theirs. They know all kinds of things about snails and it has helped to develop empathy in them. Caring for a pet is calming and restorative. It makes them feel important and needed. I sometimes hear my daughter admonishing her snails, maybe playing out some injustice from our own relationship and somehow making sense of her own emotional life.
I am aware of course, that these playful days will change, as time changes everything eventually. My children are 8 and 7 now. The eldest, my daughter, is on the cusp of a new phase in her development I feel. She is reading fluently now, and I am as likely to find her curled up on the sofa reading first thing in the morning these days. She walks around reading books and eats all her meals with a book in her hand.
Where once, even a year ago, she used small-world play as a means of finding solace, she is now just as inclined to listen to music or read. Where once it healed wounds and allowed her time and space to explore thoughts which could not yet be shared; now books and songs do that for her. Yet she is half immersed still in the wonder and innocence of childhood. She shares her bed with her most special toys and takes her dolls for walks in a pram she is beginning to grow too tall for.
A world of knowledge is now hers to explore as she begins gradually, so gradually to leave her early childhood play things behind. However, play, though it changes and transforms with growth of mind and body, does not disappear altogether. We tend to think of play as a rite of passage for early childhood, but it does not simply stop at seven years of age. That the bubble of early childhood pops is true, and the totally un-self-conscious play of young children becomes more rooted in real life pursuits. Play lives with the child right through to adulthood and beyond, changing and evolving alongside them, a constant companion.
Play is not just about making fantasy stories for small toys; it’s about experimenting with anything and everything, about being eternally curious. One day play might be building a hotel from Lego or racing cars down a track, another it might entail writing an entire script for teddies to act out or finding out about car engines and then re-building an engine from junk modelling materials. Play naturally becomes more sophisticated as the child’s brain matures. Junk modelling might turn into robotics and understanding electronics or design. Or the endless books written for teddies might turn into the writing of real books. Who knows?
This is what I find so exciting about play. It allows children to explore their passions, and to naturally challenge themselves when the time is right. If we believe in the power of play, we must honour it by giving children the time to do it. What I have realised is that if we as a family are too busy, too rushed, then genuine fulfilling play does not happen. An absence of play in our home is usually an indicator that I have the balance of our lives wrong. When we slow down again, play sneaks in and fills all the gaps. The magic comes back.
When my children are engaged in play, I try not to interrupt if I can help it. I never make the assumption that play is not important. Instead I believe it is the very building blocks of their future, it is the roots from which they will grow and reach out to unlimited horizons.
‘And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it’ – Roald Dahl