The Importance of Play

I ran into this news story over here and it surprised me that it was even a story.

Watch any child who is free of schedules, strict socially structured and planned activities, and the freedom to use the materials on hand and you will find that child playing. Any parent who has watched and listened quietly as their little one plays can tell you that that child is imitating and working out what is in the world around him. What parent hasn’t been surprised to find their 2 year old more interested in the wrapping paper than the brightly colored toys it hid? What parent hasn’t noticed a baby’s joy at a set of keys or a spoon?

The only reason older kids don’t play happily with what is on hand is that they have been told they need the latest toy or that cool kids don’t play that anymore. They have been trained to need entertainment, to demand it, and have been taught to be bored without it.

We don’t need to teach children to be creative–we need to keep from killing their creativity by smothering them with talking or overly specific toys and too many scheduled activities.

Yes, I am ranting.

I want my children to grow up happy and fully intact. That means I let them loose with how-to books and the supplies on hand. Rachel has a list of things she wants me to buy at the craft store and I tell her that she can buy it if she saves but otherwise she has to make due with what we have. She has made old fashioned can stilts, a fishing pole with a hook made from a jewelry find earring hook and paper fish, a riding horse from an old broomstick and a sock. She made a card board and clothespin ring toss, and a plethora of clothespin dolls. No, they aren’t high quality but she and her siblings love them because she made them herself. In fact, she is amazed at how wonderful these old fashioned toys are compared to the junk she used to buy all the time at the thrift shop.

Sure my kids play games and watch movies, and other than an occasional “that’s enough, go find something else to do” or a request that chores be done first they are free to play as long as they like. They get sick of it pretty quick when they have that much freedom. Boredom is not tolerated and pretty soon they are engrossed in something else.

Now that they are older they love to plan out games and spend much longer organizing the activity and preparing for play than actually playing. They, at 6, 8, and 10, still spend plenty of time really playing. The girls have a doll house and their cabbage patch kids, Issac has his marbles, race tracks, trains, Legos and Construx–they all play with all of it so when it comes down to it they are only divided by rooms . Every time I enter the girls room I see the dollhouse rearranged–their Only Hearts Club Kids stand in some new fashion–it always makes me want to take a picture as there is so much thought put into the setup. In my son’s room , well it is a mess. They love building things and use all sorts of random objects to build elaborate structures. One day it is Lego vehicles, then next it is Construx, the next it is race tracks. (And, as you can see from the photos, my son likes to play with our rock collection.)

They don’t own any toys that all go perfectly together. They wouldn’t keep them that way if they did. Marvel Super Heroes and Villains often make their way into the doll house alongside my vintage Strawberry Shortcake dolls. The ceramic tea-set my in-laws got the girls are as often used with miss-matched plastic kitchen things and foods and Cabbage Patch Kids as they are used for real dress up tea parties elaborately set up by the kids. Wooden blocks and train tracks are often used with matchbox cars and the old fashioned Little People from my Sesame Street set. And that is just inside–you wouldn’t believe the mish-mash of toys that litter our yard in the summer months. (And you know those boots we went to find–those were so my ten year old could go play in the giant mud puddle that fills the valley out back every spring.)

Yes, it gets messy. Sure it isn’t as nice and neat as those little craft kits and running them to t-ball and every other thing under the sun that kids under 12 can be involved in. Yet somehow it is right and it works and the kids are learning and enjoying and growing in ways that they wouldn’t if they were on a schedule and played one kit at a time.