What If Play Doesn’t Help Kids In Adulthood?

As back to school season swirls around us, I have noticed a common topic of discussion among early childhood folks: PLAY.

That’s great news!

I am a huge supporter of play in early childhood settings, which will come as no surprise to long-time readers of my blog. Lately, however, something has really caught my attention in the ways we early childhood professionals talk about play. In effort to prove the importance of play, we dissect it down to its component parts and articulate it’s value for the children’s futures:

  • We identify the math and problem solving skills embedded in block towers.
  • We name the self regulation and physical coordination honed on the slide.
  • We articulate the early literacy skills refined through invented writing in dramatic play corners.

I think talking about play in this way has value because it makes play easier to defend. If we know that playing makes deposits towards a child’s future self, we are justified in including play as part of high-quality early childhood environments. In short, this kind of defense of play is the language that adults speak and understand. “Playing isn’t a waste of time, because look at how much the kids are learning!”

But, I think talking about play only in relationship to the child’s future self is a symptom of our cultural misunderstanding of the function of play along with our deep anxiety about whether or not children will be prepared to meet the future demands of school (and life!) if “all they do all day is play.”

As early childhood educators, what would we say if children’s play actually didn’t make a difference in their lives as future adults? If play was something that children did, not because it made them into better or more competent adults, but because it was a critical element of experiencing the world as a child. Would we still work so hard to defend it?

You see, I believe that the more we situate the value of play in the future returns of successful adulthood, the more we strip children of their value as human beings with agency and dignity in the present. Children’s play does not have to be measured by the yardstick of adulthood in order to have value. Children’s play does not have to prepare them for the classroom in order to be important.

Children’s play is important because it’s a tool they use to understand the world and their place in it. Play provides the rich context for children to engage with peers and create their own valuable peer culture, something that exists outside of and apart from adults. Play is important not because we adults decide it is important, but because children – through their insatiable drive to play – say it’s so.

I encourage you to keep looking to play as a source of insight about the kinds of skills children develop for their future role as adult citizens of this world. But set that agenda on the back burner, and start paying attention to play because it’s what children do, and therefore, it’s important.

Emily Plank is a writer and consultant in the field of early childhood education. Her book, Discovering the Culture of Childhood, has won acclaim for its innovation and fresh perspective on children. She is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in Child Studies at Linköping University in Sweden where her reading and schoolwork is a constant source of new ideas that she enjoys sharing with the world. She lives with her husband and three young children in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Talking To Children About Tragedies

Today is September 11, and many of our minds are circling back to stories of tragedy, loss, and grief. My heart feels heavy, and it isn’t just this singular event, or the wars that have followed, but devastation around the world: the haunting picture of the two-year-old boy who drowned while trying to flee Syria with his family, stories marking the ten-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Facebook posts from friends doing relief work in Nepal following the earthquake.

This morning, I read an article in Brain, Child magazine about what it was like to be a mother in New York on the morning of 9/11, and I once again feel overwhelmed by the staggering hurt and pain that exists in the world. Reconciling the gap between my life and the lives in the stories I have recently encountered is impossible.

I write these sentences on my computer, in my apartment in Switzerland, with food in the refrigerator, and clean water ready at a moment’s notice. The issues concerning me today are a never-ending mountain of laundry, leaving on time to pick my children up from school, and addressing unfinished writing projects on my to-do list.

My life seems so vastly different from the lives I read about that at times, it is hard to connect.

Until images and stories of children remind me that at the heart of these stories are human lives: children, families, communities, nations.

But what about our children? How do we handle trauma with kids?

Presence with children. It is easy for adults to get distracted while waiting for news to unfold. As must as possible, restricting the 24-hour news coverage helps maintain an atmosphere of routine for children. When tragedy strikes, we must work hard to maintain presence with our children. As Susan Buttenwieser writes,

Maybe there is more to being a mom than craft projects and baking. And maybe what your daughter really needs is for you to stay focused on what is right in front of you: her.

Honoring Our Needs. Sometimes, particularly when tragedy strikes close to home, we must spend time on the phone with loved ones or check for news updates. Taking care of ourselves while remaining present with children is sometimes challenging, but we must bring our whole selves, our grieving, worried, or preoccupied selves into those relationships of presence. And when we bring our whole selves into relationship with children, children are remarkably empathetic.

Give age appropriate information in supported environments. When children are met with scary events, it is important that they can trust the adults in their lives to be honest with them.

Be careful about television. Children often interpret television news replays as novel events. Each time they see a plane crash into a building, they think it’s a new plane and a new building. Consider turning to written sources for news updates or wait to watch video clips until you can preview them before children see them.

Let them PLAY!  One of the most powerful things that children can do to process tragedy is to play. Consider how children play “doctor” right after yearly checkups, or “family” when a peer has a new sibling. Add props to dramatic play that assists children in constructing a play world, and then give them time and space to weave a play theme.

Share stories of hope, and find ways for children to be involved. In the face of tragedy, we seek ways to effect change in our neighborhoods and around the world – through acts of financial generosity, or bold hospitality, or radical creativity, or ingenious community building. Find ways to bring children into that process, demonstrating that they can make a difference.

Other helpful resources:

The Best Thing You Can Do For Your Children Today: Let Them PLAY!

IMG_4301We were traveling in South Africa a few weeks ago. Our ship docked for a six-day port stay, and we were lucky enough to see the highlights: a cable car ride to the top of Table Mountain, a hop-on/hop-off tour bus that drove us around the city, a drive to Boulder Beach to see the penguins swimming in the ocean, and a climb up to the lighthouse at Cape Point to watch the swirling waters where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet. Plus, we visited the aquarium, played at some parks, ate plenty of delicious food, and found a western-style grocery store to restock our snack cupboard.

A few days into our adventures, my oldest turned to me and said, (more…)

Parks in China, Vietnam, Singapore, Myanmar, and India

In the last two months our family has spent time in six different countries, visiting parks in every location.  I have a growing theory that the casual observer can learn something about the culture from paying attention to the types of equipment in a playground and watching the ways that equipment is used by the children and the adults they are with.

My sampling of playgrounds from the countries in the title of this post (plus, the post I wrote a few weeks ago about parks in Japan) is very small, and I’m sure does not provide a clear overview of playgrounds across that country.  Still, I enjoy reflecting on our experiences in these parks and wondering what conclusions I can draw given my very limited experience. (more…)

We Are All Outsiders: Play is Our Way IN

We were in Japan last week, and I was reminded of the exhilaration of immersing myself in a brand new culture.  We quite literally did not know how to do the most basic things: board the escalators, eat the amazing food, or flush the toilets.  Relying on cues from the local Japanese was the only window we had into cultural expectations.

·         The line of pedestrians standing along the left side of the escalator signaled that we were to keep a lane open on the right for those commuters rushing to catch their train.

·         The full shoe cubbies by the doorway to the restaurant clued us to take our own shoes off before entering.

·         I had to guess on the toilets.* (more…)