We 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, “Mom? Can we please go back to the ship so we can play?”
This isn’t the first time I’ve had such a request. In fact, the plea to play in their 120 square foot windowless room surfaces in the course of each port stay (and during our days at sea if they have become overly structured and limiting).
To my adult ears, this plea makes little sense. I’m tempted to respond with But, we’re in South Africa/India/Myanmar!
To my educator ears, their response is the most natural and expected response in the world.
- Play is the mechanism by which children process their new experiences.
- Play moves sights, sounds, fears, anxieties, excitements, and curiosities to a place of understanding.
- Play is the vehicle by which new learning roots firmly into the brain.
- Play is the maker of meaning.
Observing children at play reveals clues about the important processing they are doing. The themes they incorporate into their scripts are the pieces of their days that they are trying to understand:
- We had trouble with an ATM card in Hong Kong and had to spend a few hours at a bank sorting it out. Our children – back in the comfort of their rooms – said to each other, “Let’s play ATM.”
- Monthly, our ship community donned life jackets and practiced evacuating to lifeboat stations. In subsequent days, our children would say, “Let’s play Lifeboat Drill. I’ll be the captain. Don’t forget to put on your warm clothing and closed-toed shoes.”
- We rode double-decker buses in Hong Kong and South Africa, tuk-tuks and ferries in India, and taxis everywhere. Our children incorporated our novel forms of transportation into their play scripts, haggling about prices, confirming directions, and mimicking the experiences they observed in our travels.
- As you might expect, we experienced a wide range of restroom facilities throughout our adventures: toilets lacking seats, squat toilets, toilet-paper-free countries, and pay-per-use public restrooms. All of these new experiences filtered their way into our children’s play scripts.
But children don’t need exotic adventures; each day in and of itself overflows with “new.”
To an infant, “new” may be…
- the feel of her car seat buckle,
- the flash of light reflected from the kitchen window, off the refrigerator, and onto her knee,
- or the sound of a dog barking as the mail carrier passes.
To a toddler, “new” may be…
- an automatic flush toilet,
- water that miraculously and ceaselessly flows from the bathroom faucet,
- or the crash of a glass hitting a tile floor.
To a preschooler, “new” may be…
- recognizable letter combinations in books and on store signs,
- the feel of swinging on the monkey bars,
- or a friend who decides not to play.
Time to process life experience is a critical element of development. The single best thing we can do for children is to provide them with uninterrupted blocks of time to play in order to make meaning out of the world.
Some fabulous resources on play:
- Heather Shumaker’s excellent article addresses tough themes in play: “Playing Dead”
- Denita Dinger’s insightful list explores the roles of adults and children: “Play is the Important Stuff”
- Janet Lansbury’s creative list of toys to encourage play: “6 Gifts that Encourage Child-Directed Play”
An update from Emily: Our Semester at Sea voyage has ended, and our family has returned to the United States. Our stay will be brief, as my husband has accepted a position as the director of an international university in Switzerland and we will be relocating permanently to Lausanne on July 1. I am thrilled for the chance to explore early childhood education in Europe as a part of my continued curiosity about the cultural relevancy of parenting/ECE practices. I will still return to the United States to consult regularly, and I will be investing time in the coming months to writing. I’m also exploring the idea of podcasting with a group of like-minded educators…anyone with the skills to coordinate a long-distance podcast, please be in touch!