Summer is a time for play, or at least more play than most of us can squeeze in during the school year. Ditto for weekends, right? But after hearing Dr. John Ratey at the Gurian Institute and reading some of his work, I’ve been compelled to read and think more about the role of play in the lives of children and adults. Now I ask why do so many of us limit play to vacations and weekends? I’m sure I am not alone on this one. On any given evening, if I asked myself what I did to play today, I’d be hard-pressed to honestly answer that with a real example of play. Yikes!
Stuart Brown writes in Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul that he avoids a strict definition of play, but says there are some key properties of play:
- apparently purposeless – no survival value
- inherent attraction – ah, it’s just plain fun!
- freedom from time
- diminished consciousness of self – you’re in the moment, in your zone
- improvisational potential – open to chance
- continuation of desire
Scott Eberle of the Strong Museum in Rochester, NY sees a six-step process of play, which players maybe or may not go through in order. These are:
If you think of children you know, you’ll recognize most of these steps in their play. It’s what they do, and generally, do well. During a week at the beach, children eagerly anticipate a day at the beach with the “best surf.” There is some surprise in seeing how big the waves are on any given day. There is intense pleasure as bodies are thrown into the surf repeatedly or bounce into the crashing waves, and then ride boards into the shore. There is understanding and strength as these actions are repeated building neurological connections which will serve them well in the future (physical strength and coordiantion, knowing their limits, risk taking, appreciation and respect for nature). There is no sense of time, just the sheer pleasure and innate desire to keep at it, at least until the hunger pains cause them to head to the cooler for a quick lunch.
The innate desire in children to play allows them to make sense of their world, solve problems and develop social skills and a sense of autonomy. By “play,” I mean real, imaginary and unstructured play. Something compelling and interesting, where the setting, characters, problem, resolutions are devised by the child or with peers – not organized teams or activities. These traits and our biological drive to play do not need to fade with age, but often, they do. If we are lucky, we find work that is rooted in many elements of play. The work we find most fulfilling is almost always a recreation and extension of youthful play. A running coach, an artist, a sailor, a software designer, a teacher – could each probably identify parts of their playful youth which keeps them returning to a job in a related field now. But play in adulthood can be found in everyday activities such as puzzles, games, sports for the sheer joy, learning about the world or acquiring a new skills. Learn alongside your kids, and that’s play, too. How many of us make the time to play each day, where the obligations, task lists, duty to others is set aside for just a bit? Research is showing that that “down time” yields greater productivity, creativity, and longevity. Really. Play can do that for you, if you let it.
The start of the school year is inherently a time of new beginnings. For me, identifying my hopes and dreams for the school year is more significant than New Year’s resolutions. Every day is a new beginning but the start of the school year olds such promise for each of us. I’m one of the lucky ones whose work marries vocation with play. No matter what grade I teach, I’m grateful for the opportunity to play – with anticipation, surprise, freedom from time – with children. My hopes and dreams often focus on goals for my classroom community, but this year, I’m also going to look at how my children engage in play through a refined lense – the long term positive effects of play and what that teaches me about each child have greater importance this year. Cliche as it is, play is children’s work and early childhood educators and parents can’t do enough to help the world understand to the significance of that work. Perhaps if adults revisit play themselves and experience the joy and benefits of play, we’ll better understand why it is essential to childhood. To that end, I’m also making a conscious effort to engage in something playful each day. Join me.
(Before you go play, would you take a few minutes to share with me what your child does for play and other tidbits about your take on childhood? Click on the link to the right “SURVEY” or cut and paste this URL into your browser http://www.surveymonkey.com/s.aspx?sm=3Wv_2ffaWjOMdXIjqYrvTTwg_3d_3d. Thanks for your help!)