In many different places - on this blog, in books and articles I've written - I refer to rhythmic play. I often get asked about this. So I will try to explain here what I mean by this term. And I should say that sometimes I refer to it as formed play or relaxed play - depends on what mood I'm in when I choose the word that most appeals at the time!
In general, one can understand such play as having something to do with breathing in and breathing out - of active times alternating with quieter times. When one watches such play, one is aware of how relaxed yet focused the children are. There is a synergy between them, though there may be quarrels and disagreements, these don't dominate. One might think of watching a flock of starlings or sparrows to get a picture of what I mean: the birds occasionally squabble or argue over a choice feeding spot, but there is harmony in their movements and the flock as a whole is not disturbed. Rather, the pecking and shoving of a few birds is effortlessly absorbed by the healthy movements of the flock as a whole.
One can contrast this to the unformed play of a child who does not really know how to play. It is frantic, disjointed and usually uncomfortable for an adult (at least for a sensitive adult) to watch. If one looks closely, one can observe that often the child is holding his breath, is cramped up, has a lot of tension in his neck and chest region. There is no breathing in and breathing out. And when such children are in a group, there is a feeling of discordance, of selves hitting up against each other. There is no sense of a whole.
I think the role of the adult is important in these situations - especially if all this is new to one's family. One needs to think of ways to "kick start" play, to start the children off with a game or set up a play scenario for them. Here, the adult is not playing with the child, but holding the space as it were. The adult remains busy with her own work, her own tasks, keeping a strong and peaceful presence, and the children drift in and out of her aura, sometimes helping her, sometimes doing their own, equally important work/play. If trouble arises, the adult can come in, not as the voice of doom or the voice of peace negotiations, but as the one who can recreate the space and help the children find their balance again. This means, therefore, neither telling off anyone who is naughty nor setting up a mini therapy session to explore the implications of not sharing! Rather, it means the adult will come in and, in a way that is appropriate for the age of the children, and help them to reform their play. So she might say to a couple of squabbling 5 year olds - "Poor dollie! She doesn't like to be fought over. Here - Jane, you set up her bed, Theo, you find her a warm blanket and Rose and Jill, you sing her a song." Children almost always respond to imaginative age appropriate direction. And with older ones , say of 9 and up, humor is usually best - "Daryl, what kind of silly behavior is that? Does that couch look like a trampoline?! I don't think so! Ok fellows, outside and let's see who can do the highest jump on the trampoline!" And this is said with a smile and a touch of playfulness - not in a voice dripping with unsaid recrimination!
A child who really knows how to play and whose life is held and carried in a strong rhythm can fully relax into her play. She might spontaneously talk or sing to herself - and the rhythms which she internalizes are expressed through skipping, hopping and the whole harmonious , musical quality which she expresses through her physical being. Herein lies one of the most powerful aides to good health that we can provide our children - and its expression is through play, through the relaxed rhythmic play that is the natural birthright of all children.