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The Wonders of Play

By Joan Almon

I’ve often gazed at a sunset with its glorious colors and cloud formations and felt a sense of wonder. I feel something similar when I see a preschool or kindergarten classroom full of children at play. They are exploring every aspect of life in their own colorful, unique ways and making it their own. The hum of play fills the room, and I sometimes think, “This is as close to heaven as I am likely to get on this earth.”

How fortunate we are to be given the incredible gift of play. After all, we could grow up as pure pragmatists with our noses to the grindstone every moment and rarely see “a world in a grain of sand, or a heaven in a wild flower,” as William Blake says so eloquently. As adults, we have work to do with goals and objectives in mind, but we are also endowed with an enormous urge to create. If our playfulness was given free rein (with some adult support) when we were young, then it has probably matured into a full range of human activity, done with purpose but also playfulness.

Without play, life can easily become drudgery. We feel the tedium of one more sink full of dishes to wash until we see children happily playing in the water and doing the dishes at the same time. Playful children awaken our own innate playfulness.

I was reminded of this after a recent blizzard, the second in a row in Washington’s winter of “snowmaggedon.” We adults were intent on clearing sidewalks and cars, and grumbling a bit after what felt like days of shoveling. Down the street, nine-year-old Anna was working just as hard, but she was digging out a snow house to play in. She had already helped her mother shovel their sidewalk but had energy to spare for play. She lifted my spirits and I had a much better time shoveling after that.

Play as a foundation for life
Play adds levity to our life but it also allows us to explore the deepest aspects of life. I think of Kristin, although that is not her real name. She was in my preschool/kindergarten class many years ago. One Monday, her mother pulled me aside to say that a family friend had died suddenly over the weekend and Kristin was very upset. I was glad to know this, for it then made perfect sense to me when she said to her friends, “Let’s pretend I’m dead and you’ve come to help me.”

They were delighted with this new possibility for play and gathered props: a plank big enough for Kristin to lie down on, and flowers and candles (unlit) to place around her. Periodically they carried her around in stately procession. Over three days, she and her friends developed this theme during play time. I kept an eye on it, and while it was a solemn play, it did not seem morbid. They explored death in a deep but playful way.

On the third day, one of her friends came to me to say that Kristin was dead. “I’ll bring something,” I said, and my eyes fell on a basket of painted wooden Easter eggs. I carried the basket to her and knelt down next to her board where she lay with arms crossed and eyes slightly open. Suddenly, she sat up with arms raised in the air and said, “I’m alive again, I’m alive again.” Then she stood up and the play was complete.

I’ve thought about her play for many years and recently had a chance to talk with her about it. She’s now in her thirties with a wonderful husband and beautiful young daughter. I had not seen her since she was a girl, but we met on the occasion of her mother’s funeral, a mother who had loved her deeply and had given her a beautiful, well-rounded childhood. When we had a moment, I told her about this play scenario. I was not surprised that she did not remember it. We rarely remember our play from preschool and kindergarten days. After I described it, she said with conviction, “I worked it through.” “Yes,” I said, “you did.” Play allows us to take on all of life’s experiences and work them through.

I don’t expect Kristin to use make-believe play now to help her with her grief, but I hope she will use the grown-up versions of play. She can turn to her friends and family for emotional support. She can create a beautiful space with flowers and candles where she can think of her mother each day with prayers and meditations. She can derive insight and a lifting of the spirit from poetry, music and other arts; and she may turn toward the more practical aspects of life such as nature, gardening, and cooking for help. Fortunately, she was raised in a family that valued all of these wonderful aspects of human life and gave her the chance to explore them through play when she was young. It is a foundation that one never loses.

Play in early childhood education
One place that traditionally fostered creative play and play-based learning was the world of early childhood education, but a major shift has happened there during the past decade or two. State standards for math and literacy in kindergartens call for high levels of learning which are then measured by standardized tests. These approaches have moved early education away from play-based, experiential learning toward didactic and even scripted instruction, despite research showing the importance of play and hands-on learning in early childhood. A report on the current state of early education called Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School is available on the Alliance for Childhood’s web site (allianceforchildhood.org).

Now, new core standards for the nation are being written by the National Governors’ Association and others, and will almost certainly demand even higher levels of achievement in kindergarten and preschool. These standards are due to be released in March, but an early draft called for kindergarten children to “read with fluency and comprehension.” If that standard is adopted by the states, then even more time will be devoted to instruction and less to play-based learning. Similar problems exist in grades one through three where standards and testing encourage didactic teaching rather than the participatory style of learning that children need.

The Alliance for Childhood is mounting a campaign calling for the withdrawal of the national core standards for K-3 for the time being, so that a more well-rounded, research-based approach can be developed by a team of highly regarded experts in early childhood. Check the Alliance web site for activities in this campaign.

Play deprivation
Why are children today not playing and what are the implications? Fear of outdoor danger, real or imaginary, keeps children indoors where they are usually engaged with electronic entertainment—for a shocking average of over seven hours per day for children ages 8-18, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Their after-school time is filled with adult-organized activities so that they have too little time to play with friends and organize their own games. And many schools have eliminated or cut back recess in hopes of raising test scores. Our society has become expert at measuring what is learned but has forgotten to measure what is lost, especially time and opportunity for play. We are all racing to the top while children’s health and well-being too often fall to the bottom.

The subject of play deprivation is just beginning to get much-needed attention. Play has diminished at the same time that many new illnesses have grown rapidly.

We cannot say that the absence of play has “caused” these illnesses, but its absence is almost certainly a strong contributing factor, one that receives far too little public attention.

Childhood obesity is a prime example, although it is only the tip of an iceberg of growing illnesses such as depression, autism, hyperactive disorders, asthma, and allergies. So far, the anti-obesity campaigns have focused on the role of nutrition and physical activity, particularly sports, adult-run traditional games, and physical exercise. Rarely is open-ended play mentioned, although traditionally children played actively outdoors for hours every day, burning off huge amounts of calories. One does not see many examples of such play today, but I had a chance to observe it recently.

An eight-year-old cousin was at our family’s summer house for two weeks. He was intrigued by roller coasters and was reading about them, drawing them, and enacting them. Each day he created an imaginary roller coaster and would “ride” it with appropriate sound effects for about an hour. Riding it entailed running up and down the steep attic steps, around the porch on three sides of the main house, around the three acres of yard, and looping behind the log cabin where I work. His playful energy buoyed me up, and I was astonished at how long he could sustain this play on his own. I knew from his parents that he was actually afraid of roller coasters and he seemed to be working through those fears by designing roller coasters and playing them out. At the same time he was developing incredible physical strength and keeping himself slim and healthy.

When government officials have been approached about including play in their campaigns for childhood obesity, they are reluctant. “We’d be going too far out on a limb,” they say. Or, “There is no constituency for play.” Actually, there are millions of people who actively support play. They’re called children, but unfortunately they don’t have much of a voice in the matter. In contrast, the Minister for Children in Ireland surveyed children and heard their complaints about the absence of play. He established a national play policy called Ready, Steady, Play. The U.S. is presently the only country in the U.N. that has not signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which guarantees children the right to play. We also ranked near the bottom of the 21 wealthiest countries in a UNICEF survey of childhood happiness.

A hopeful sign, though, is that parents are now expressing grave concern about the lack of play in children’s lives. A recent survey questioned nearly 1700 parents. Eighty percent agreed that children’s unstructured play is extremely or very important. In another study, nearly 95% of mothers surveyed in the U.S. expressed deep concern that their children are growing up too quickly and missing out on the joys and experiential learning opportunities of free play and natural exploration. If parents will take action, their power will change the world of play for children.

What can be done to restore play?

  • Become an advocate for play. Join the newly formed U.S. Play Coalition. The only requirement is that you support play and are willing to communicate about it. (usplaycoalition.clemson.edu)
  • Work with KaBoom!, a play advocacy organization, on a program called “Playful Cities” in which mayoral offices, parks departments, schools and others join together to strengthen play in their communities. (See kaboom.org)
  • Organize “Play Days” in schools, parks, and neighborhoods. For information, go to KaBoom! or the International Play Association in the US. (playusa.org)
  • Encourage children’s coaches to give children time to organize their own games of soccer, ice hockey, etc. before the formal coaching sessions begin.
  • Organize a screening of the PBS documentary, “Where Do the Children Play?” It can be purchased through the University of Michigan Press. Screenings and conversations take place in schools, universities, libraries, nature centers, and living rooms. (press.umich.edu) (Editor’s note: The Winnetka Alliance has a copy of this DVD and is willing to loan it to groups.)
  • Stay in touch with the Alliance for Childhood, which works to promote play. It is currently focusing on restoring play and hands-on learning in early education and is training play specialists (called playworkers in the UK) who support children’s own play in parks and other settings. (allianceforchildhood.org)

Joan Almon is the Executive Director of the Alliance for Childhood, located in College Park, MD. Ms. Almon spoke at The Alliance’s 2010 Networking Dinner. This article first appeared in the Spring-Summer 2010 issue of “Early Childhood.”

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