The Natural Habitat for Children is When They are at Play
“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” ~Mister Rogers
Children have always played, even before children were “invented” in the modern sense of the word during the 18th century Enlightenment and the Romantic period that followed. Less than a century later, during what is often called the Victorian era in the Western World, the leading theory for the existence of children’s play was that its primary purpose was to expend “excess energy.”
This is also when some of the pioneers in the early years were at work, taking play seriously: people like John Dewey, Jean Piget, Maria Montessori, and Lev Vygotsky, researchers who saw that play was our human education instinct made manifest. Instead of simply dismissing play as children burning off their wiggles, these researchers applied the scientific method to re-discover what we had known before we saw fit to separate children from the rest of humanity.
“In play, a child is always above his average age, above his daily behavior; in play it is as though he were a head taller than himself.” ~Lev Vygotsky
My friend and playworker Meynell Aymes says that it’s impossible to define play, but like love and obscenity, we know it when we see it. But there are some clues that we can use to identify it. For instance, authentic play is always a self-selected activity.
A couple years ago I was observing a kindergarten teacher who wanted to make her lesson of the day playful. It was fall and the children had made a game of gathering tree leaves while playing outdoors. Her idea was to “extend” their learning about leaves with a kind of matching game relay race. The kids were divided into teams, then she handed each child a leaf of a different sort -- maple, oak, birch, and so on. She explained to the children that they were to take turns racing to the far end of the room where they were to drop their leaf into a basket with a “matching” leaf (i.e., from the same type of tree) then race back to tag a teammate who was then off to the races. The kids seemed intrigued by this idea, queuing up easily, although one boy wanted to sit against the wall, twirling his leaf by the stem. Other than that, the game got off to a good start, although one girl just continued running around the room in circles not wanting her turn to end. Soon another child got the idea to hide under a table, then another started running with the entire basket of maple leaves. As I watched the children, one-by-one, choose their own activities, their teacher was growing visibly frustrated as she failed to coax, cajoll, and compel the children to “play” her game.
“Play is the highest expression of human development in childhood for it alone is the free expression of what is in a child’s soul.” ~Friedrich Frobel
We’ve all been there. We try to make it fun, but the kids aren’t having it. That’s because no matter how much it might look like “play,” it isn’t. Play is something we must create ourselves. The children were playing when they gathered leaves, engaging with them as they saw fit, experimenting with them, sorting and organizing them, touching, feeling, and smelling them, not because they were told or urged to, but because when we play we are scientists ourselves, asking and answering our own questions.
After ten minutes, the teacher threw up her hands, walking over to me with a look of chagrin, “I give up!”
A large group of the children were now running in a circle around the room, holding their leaves over their heads, watching them flutter. Several were now under the table. They had made a small pile of leaves and sat around them talking quietly. There were individual kids spaced around the room: one was tearing leaves into tiny pieces, another arranging leaves in a row, and the original rebel was still twirling his leaf, apparently mesmerized.
“We are never more fully alive, more completely ourselves, or more deeply engrossed in anything than when we are playing.” ~Charles Shaefer
As we watched the children, keeping our distance, we adults talked quietly about what we were witnessing, speculating about what they may be learning or exploring or experiencing.
Eleanor Duckworth is a writer and educator who worked for years alongside the great Jean Piaget and who has made it part of her mission to make the researcher’s work accessible to classroom teachers. One of her key pieces of advice for us is to stop trying to implement the work of Piaget (or Dewey or Montessori or Vygotsky) but rather to become Piaget. And that is what this kindergarten teacher and I were doing at that moment. Instead coaxing, conjoling, or controlling, instead of leading or instructing, we had set aside our adult agendas in favor of researching children in their natural habitat.
And the natural habitat for children is when they are at play. It’s high time we returned to this understanding of play.