A couple of weeks ago, I posed an idea: what if the war on play is really just a symptom of our cultural play deprivation? It seems like a logical conclusion to me. Adults, generally, don’t play, so they don’t see the value of play. Meanwhile, play is a basic human need, and when our needs aren’t met, we resent those same met needs in others. Without value, and with added underlying resentment, play is axed from children’s lives, replaced by structured activities and other-imposed pursuits.
I think we face two obstacles in changing our perception of play.
1. Through our adult lenses, we believe that play is a waste of time. We may champion a child’s need to play, but play in our own lives (at least in my cultural experience in the United States…I’m sure it’s not this way everywhere) is an add-on at best. We play after we work, only with our extra time.
2. We tend to view the play we do value – children’s play – as a means to an end. Play is a way to make sense of the adult world. Play is the way reinforce cognitive skills. Play is the way to build relationships with peers. Play is a way to build lifelong learning brains. As educators, we attach it to standards to justify its place in the early childhood classroom, desperate for someone to take it seriously. Yet, when we attach it to standards and scrutinize its worth, I think we undermine its value.
Certainly, play accomplishes all of the skills I have listed, and as educators, our time in history dictates that we can prove the worth of what we are doing in a standards-oriented educational system. But a piece of the value of play lies in its “non-product-ness.” One quality of good play is that is it not the means to an end, but rather, and end in and of itself. Jean Piaget says real play is “actions that are an end in themselves and do not form part of any series of actions imposed by someone else of from outside.” (1)
First, we have to define play. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff provide this five-point definition of play (2). This definition was developed by child development researchers and scientists, and is used in other texts I have read about play.
1. Play must be pleasurable and enjoyable.
2. Play must have no extrinsic goals.
3. Play is spontaneous and voluntary.
4. Play involves active engagement.
5. Play contains an element of make-believe.
According to this rubric, time whiled away on Facebook, with an evening television show, or with computer games can certainly be relaxing, but do not qualify as play. The same goes for time spent pursuing hobbies: gardening, knitting, kick-boxing — all of these actives fill a very real need, but none of them qualify as play.
I wonder if this 5-point definition could actually work as a rubric to measure adult’s play? To be honest, I can think of many activities I engage in that meet the first four elements, but I can’t think many times I play that *also* includes that fifth piece about make-believe. Perhaps make-believe play fills a niche purpose in our younger years that we outgrow as we age? Or perhaps, if we could access our capacity for imagination, we would really experience the power of play.
A few days ago, my family went to our local pool. I swam with my oldest daughter who is becoming quite the skilled swimmer. We were navigating our way around the lazy river, and I felt us enter into true play.
Me: “What if you grab onto the edge, and I will hold your leg. I will pretend to be floating away, and you try to hang onto me with your foot!”
Daughter: “YES!” Me: “Don’t let me float away!”
Daughter: (laughing) “Hold on tight! Your slipping!”
I don’t know what it was that sparked this playful episode, but we both had a blast. I felt re-energized when we climbed out of the pool, and deeply connected to my daughter.
I would like to compile a list anecdotes – stories from you about activities you engage in that meet this definition of play. If you can’t think of something that fits all five elements, aim for the first four. I am specifically interested in stories of your first-hand experience with play outside of your work with young children. Do you play without your children? I will publish your thoughts in my next post about play.
(1) Mercogliano, Chris. In defense of childhood: protecting kids’ inner wildness. Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press, 2007, p 55.
(2) Pasek, Kathy, Roberta M. Golinkoff, and Diane E. Eyer. Einstein never used flash cards: how our children really learn–and why they need to play more and memorize less. Emmaus, Pa.: Rodale, 2003, p. 211.