This article first appeared in the Homeschool Journey newsletter, February 2004
Some of the most joyful moments I have had as a homeschooling mom have come during our occasional ‘Boy Days’, days when my sons invite their friends over, en masse. To see children of their age - some as old as 14 - playing makes my heart sing. To see them dressing up and improvising and organizing and running around, is just wonderful! One minute they’re soldiers, the next they’re Jedi or aliens, the next they’re voyageurs. Pausing only long enough to troop in and refuel (“Mom, is there any juice?”, “How many cookies can we have?”), these games can go on all day. And by the time the last boy reluctantly goes home, my boys are tired and satisfied in that way which only happens when a deep need has been met.
Our society does not value play - the qualifier ‘educational’ so often has to be tacked on, lest parents or others fear that the activity be somehow a waste of time. Many of you undoubtedly came to Waldorf education because of its emphasis on the value of creative play. None of us needs convincing of the imperative need of free, imaginative play in young children. But what about the older ones? What about the 10 and 11 year-olds, or even older? Do they also benefit from play? How do older children play?
Thirty years ago, when I was a 10 year old girl (give or take a year or two), girls played dress-up as well as with dolls and doll houses. Now? Apparently, the average Barbie owner is 5 years old and getting younger: older girls do not play with dolls. Make no mistake, I’m no fan of Barbie’s, but I think it’s a shame - more than a shame, a crime - that little girls of 10 or 11 are too ‘grown-up’ to play with dolls.
Little girls of 10 or 11 - does that jive with you? Culturally, given our propensity to speed everything up, are we still able to think of 11 year-olds as little girls and boys? Obviously an 11 year-old is very different from a 6 year-old, able to take some responsibility around the house, for instance, and beginning to experience growing intellectual abilities as well as some physical changes, but an 11 year-old is still a child and should be respected as such.
I love the film, The Sound of Music. Laugh if you will - and we can all share a chuckle about many aspects of the film - but it shows children who are expected to be children, treated like children, and allowed to be children. Not until she is 16 is the eldest understood to be on the threshold of womanhood. Sure, she’s more mature, grown-up, and is given more responsibilities than the younger ones - but she’s still allowed to be carefree, playful and open to life’s experiences. She’s allowed to play.
OK, so I don’t expect people to dress their children in rompers made out of curtains and, sure, 21st Century America (or Australia, Europe, Canada, Mexico...) is not 1930s make-believe Austria, but still... Do we as parents and adults allow and offer our older children opportunities for play, or have they slid into a regime of lessons, sports and controlled experiences like Scouts or 4-H?
So why is it so important for them to play, anyway? Because play is another term for creative, open-ended and flexible activities, those that summon up the child’s powers of imagination, and create in him the possibility for finding new ways to interact, create and explore. Play is an antidote to the rigid, dogmatic and controlling behaviors which can plague us as adults if we have not had enough freedom to play as children. I wonder how much of the modern adult’s desire for escapist ‘play’ - extreme sports come to mind - is a result of a childhood need that was not met. A characteristic of extreme sport is to challenge oneself and to overcome obstacles - these are also characteristics of children’s play. Could it be that when children aren’t allowed to be children, they then have a hard time moving on definitively into adulthood?
Many children from about 10 and up have little opportunity for play. When school time is over (and that often includes home school) then chores, enrichment activities, sports, reading and time on the computer or watching TV/videos, takes up most of the rest of the child’s schedule. Aside from the computer/TV time, all of these are worthwhile activities, certainly things to be encouraged. But what about play? Do our children have time to fiddle around, daydream, doodle, be bored, make things and play?
Children need ‘unformed time’, time when nothing is scheduled, nothing demanded, during which they are not allowed to watch TV or use the computer. Playtime. And when friends come over, parents can encourage play by not allowing the children to use the computer or watch TV or a video. Those activities are not play! Unfortunately, many modern children have been brought up to confuse media use with play, and you may have to be involved with the children when they come together, helping them form games and activities - something that our parents didn’t need to do!
Having lots of board games available - everything from traditional games like chess and mancala to competitive board games like Monopoly and cooperative games (available from www.familypastimes.com and good toy shops) - is helpful. Darts, pool, archery and ping-pong are all a lot of fun, as is a trampoline and a basketball hoop in the yard.
But none of the above is really in the same league as the kind of unformed play I’m getting at. Games and equipment, like the above, will hopefully get things going and lead to more open play. For this you need things like dressing-up - cloaks, swords, crowns, belts, hats... Bricks and figures (and, yes, action-type figures come in here) are great open-ended toys. In the yard, tree stumps and logs, a plain playhouse or tree house, and old tires are great. And, if they don’t associate sand play with babies, a sand box will still be used by older children.
Another possibility for when there is a group of children is to get them playing a game like kick-the-can, tag or hide-and-go-seek (the book, Hopscotch, Hangman, Hot Potato and Ha Ha Ha: A Rulebook of Children’s Games by Jack Maguire, is a great resource). As I mentioned earlier, one may need to ‘hold’ a group of children, especially if some of them are self-conscious about playing, or have been raised to think that using a GameBoy is play, or that hitting and fighting is play. Help them organize the game and then occupy yourself with something nearby, where you’re busy but still very aware of what’s going on. Gauge how things are going and either step in and smooth rough spots or, preferably, if all is well, disappear and leave them to it. With luck and, if you’ve judge the situation correctly, they’ll take hold of the game and then create something new out of it. This is the aim: to enable the children, out of themselves, their creativity and relationships, to form some new game, some new possibility, some new adventure.
Once upon a time, children had their own language, codes, activities and ways of relating to one another. They played on the street or at someone’s house, and they didn’t need adults to show them how to play. Now their play is the subject of books and studies by anthropologists, and real play has been pushed aside, either by over-scheduling or by the pervasive presence of electronic media. It is a fundamental need of children to play: let’s build families and communities where that need is honored.
(For more about play and the culture of childhood see the great article, Voices on the Green: the Importance of Play by Sally Jenkinson)