The importance of play

Number of days we have lost with our daughter due to the negligence of the state of Illinois: 59 (Sigh... and it's the weekend.)

In order to distract myself, I've been diving into some research when I have spare moments. I have a large stack of books that are all tangentially related and have been dipping into them as time allows and as I come across them. The list includes Tools of the Mind: the Vygotskian approach to early childhood education by Elena Bodrova and Deborah Leong; The Play's the Thing: teachers' roles in children's play by Elizabeth Jones and Gretchen Reynolds; Distracted: the erosion of attention and the coming dark age by Maggie Jackson; and A Child's Work: the importance of fantasy play by Vivian Gussin Paley. They are all interesting, all rather connected, and I keep coming across the name Lev Vygotsky which is interesting.

I'm sure I will have much to say about this batch of reading when I'm all done and have thought about them some, but for right now there is one particular thing I want to share. As we've added to our family and watched our children grow and learn, it has become more and more apparent to me that play, particularly imaginative play is extremely important. This idea of play became even more important to me when H. came home, mainly because she had no idea how to do it. To discover this in your 9 year old is a tragic thing.

You see, play is no small thing. In order to play you need language, imagination, and a willingness to try new things. It is through play that children make sense of the world around them and try out new ideas and concepts. It's how they work out their fears and worries. I've listened to my children put things that scare them into their stories and imaginary games; I've heard them try out new words; I've seen them experiment with being different people... What is it like to be the bad guy? How does it feel to be completely powerful? Does having super powers really take away the things you are afraid of?

Yet H. could do nothing of this work of play. She would sit and watch her new younger sisters and brother as they acted out and narrated a whole imaginary world that she had no concept of. We had given her a doll when she first came home and I would watch as she held it, staring at it as if baffled as to its purpose. We encouraged her, helped her to see what games her siblings were playing, pretended things, and slowly, slowly she would sometimes join in. It still doesn't happen very often and she is still more comfortable with concrete activities... coloring, drawing, looking at picture books. Yet for even these activities she still needs the imaginative input of others. Take drawing for instance. Her repertoire of pictures that she draws is slowly growing, but she has yet to add a picture that is her own complete creation. The pictures that she has added have been the invention of another sibling that she particularly liked. Once she has seen that picture of someone else's she will try to do it herself, if she is successful, it is added into her drawing rotation. (I will say that this sometimes makes her brothers and sisters a wee bit upset. "She's copying me!" will every so often be heard.) It is a slow work to imagine things.

I know that H. is an extreme case, but I have always contended that older children joining their new families in another country and culture, especially if they are coming out of an impoverished environment, just need to play... or learn to play. There is plenty of time to learn academic-type things, but to be successful academically, a child needs to be comfortable in his or her own head and knows how to use imagination. The only way these skills can be learned is through play. And that would be the play that we typically think of as 3,4, and 5 year olds do... not some grown-up version of "learning" that is only vaguely disguised as play. Children can't be fooled and they know the difference.

It's an outrageous idea on some level, and when I've suggested it to parents, I tend to get smiles and nods to appease the crazy woman and I wonder if anyone has really heard me. And since it's just really my (rather educated, but without letters) humble opinion, why should anyone listen? Well, I reading the Vivian Paley book last night and nearly shouted. I did stop and insist that J. listen to it as I read it out loud. Here is what got me so excited.

Sara Smilansky, the Israeli educator who pioneered in the study of play, had wondered why the children of certain North African immigrants to Israel had difficulty learning their new language. ... Smilansky discovered that many of the children were not familiar with the sociodramatic play that occurs spontaneously among preschoolers. It seemed to her that for the newcomers to risk a new language and engage in other school experiences, they must first learn how to play. The absense of play was a major obstacle in their path to learning.
Establishing a scale of play skills, Smilansky developed a method of peer-tutoring in which those who knew how to play "taught" those who did not. The skilled players served as models for those who placed lower on the scale. In the daily repetition of dramatic play, the children demonstrated the power of play as a learning tool.
As the less-experienced players gradually entered the world of play, they increased their language fluency and followed through on other concepts introduced by the teachers. Smilansky had shown a significant correlation between play and other measure of learning deemed important in a school setting. (pp. 70-71, A Child's Work by Vivian Gussin Paley
Playing isn't wasting time. In fact, it is using a child's time in the most efficient way possible. Turn off the screens, get out the blocks and plastic animals, and get out of the way.


Anonymous said…
I saw this with my daughter adopted at age 6.5. She had difficulty with imaginative play at first. Thankfully she had a close-in-age sister whom she could follow. Imagination has grown, but she still has difficulty entering into imaginative play on her own. She does much better following someone else's lead. What you have written makes so much sense.

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