Not so long ago, Lego commented about a worrying shift in parents’ attitude to play. They noted that parents seem to be squeezing free and spontaneous play and replacing it with playdates, play programmes and organised activities where adults are present.
Many of us working with children recognise this pattern which is infiltrating early childhood education much to our dismay. It is not unsurprising that parents are keen to support their children to cope in the global competitive world and want to do everything in their power to help their child get a job, so they have a good life. But they have been caught up in the sharp elbowed, target driven exam hysteria and the false dichotomy between learning and play which fails to articulate the vital connection between them. Ironically, neither approach is making a difference to employability, but ramping up the mental health issues among children as young as four.
The reality is that play is an essential element of children’s development. “Play is so integral to childhood that a child who does not have the opportunities to play is cut off from a major portion of childhood.” In the early 1800s, Friedrich Froebel described play as the highest expression of human development in childhood; the free expression of what is in a child’s soul.
Since then many others have concurred with his view, supporting it with more and more research. Stuart Brown looked at play as the preparation for life and studied the similarity of play between children and mammals. He noted that carnivores play more than herbivores, because hunting is harder to learn than grazing. Primates play more than other mammals, because their way of life depends more on learning and less on the fixed instincts of other mammals. Human children have the most to learn and play, far more than any other primates when they are given the freedom to do so. For him play had many benefits but I particularly like this quote:
“Those who play rarely become brittle in the face of stress or lose the healing capacity for humour.”
The failure to let children play is very damaging. Clinical assessment questionnaires, which have been administered to normative groups in unchanged form over the years, show that rates of clinically significant depression and anxiety in US schoolchildren are now five to eight times what they were in the 1950s. Other research indicates that empathy has been declining and narcissism increasing, ever since valid measures of these were first developed in the late 1970s. There are even well-validated ways of assessing creative thinking, and research using these tools suggests that such thinking has been decreasing among schoolchildren at all grade levels over the past 30 years. All of these deleterious changes, accompanying the decline of play, are exactly what we would predict from our knowledge of play’s purposes.
The irony is that play is hard, it’s the practice for life. It’s not the mawkish soap powder adverts of children wearing cute clothes imitating adults! Play is not always joyful, full of laughter and happiness. Much of play was hard, tough and rule bound, but with rules set by children not adults. Play is how you learn rules. Children have the choice to quit and leave the game which makes it more democratic, but also helps children to negotiate their differences, learn their limits figure out their friendships and arrive at compromises; thereby building resilience and resourcefulness and learning a lot about themselves.
Children also play in ways that elicit anger. One youngster may accidentally hurt another in the rough and tumble, or negotiations about the rules of a game may fail or teasing that was at first in fun may go too far. But for the fun to continue, the anger must be controlled. To keep the game going in such situations, the players must react assertively, to stop the offending behaviour, without physically attacking or throwing a tantrum, either of which would bring play to an end. In this way, children learn to control their anger.
Look at Children’s Games, the painting by Pieter Breughel’s the Elder in the 1500s. It tells the story of the 230 Flemish children who have taken over the square of a town, their activities covering different times of the year. More than 90 types of play ranging from quiet solitary games to those on verge of outright brawling
Our job is to tell the world that if we want our children to grow up to live happy, productive, and moral lives then we must let them play; deep, spontaneous, child-led and untainted play where adults are invited in by the children. It’s essential for their welfare and that of our society. In the wise words of Joseph Chilton Pearce
Play is the only way the highest intelligence of humankind can unfold.
June O’Sullivan MBE
London Early Years Foundation / www.juneosullivan.com @juneosullivan