The importance of play

This summer I have read a few books about eclectic education, preparing the mind for the next homeschooling year. In my reading adventures, I also peppered the experience with a few books about dolls, you know?, the ever-present obsessions.

I found one book absolutely riveting. Dolls The Wide World Over, an historical account by Manfred Bachmann and Claus Hansmann. The first few paragraphs of the introduction won my heart immediately.

Play activates body and mind. It enriches the imagination and feeds the emotions. Even in these days of technological progress play remains essential to the child and, with certain qualifications, to the adults also. In his writings, the German philosopher Georg Klaus maintains that no grown-up man need be ashamed of admitting to his love of play, that, indeed, many a career was chosen because work in a particular field happened to correspond to something played at in childhood. Play, says Klaus, far from being a waste of time, has a deeper meaning, and increasing attention should be paid to it in the training and education of the young. Experience has shown that crammed lessons are less effective than learning through playing when the child absorbs knowledge spontaneously. Such knowledge is lasting. (italics are mine).

I found it immediately so interesting that a book published in 1971 coincides so closely with all the current literature on learning though play. The other book I was reading at the same time was Free to Learn, by Peter Gray, an evolutionary developmental psychologist. In the first chapter he writes: “...children are designed, by nature, to play and explore on their own, independently of adults. They need freedom in order to develop; without it they suffer. The drive to play freely is a basic, biological drive. Lack of free-play may not kill the physical body, as would lack of food, air or water, but it kills the spirit and stunts mental growth. Free play is the means by which children learn to make friends, overcome their fears, solve their own problems, and generally take control of their own lives. It is also the primary means by which children practice and acquire the physical and intellectual skills that are essential for success in the culture in which they are growing. Nothing that we do, no amount of toys we buy or “quality time” or special training we give our children, can compensate for the freedom we take away. The things that children learn through their own initiatives, in free play, cannot be taught in other ways”. Amazing isn’t it?.

But, the truth of the matter is that play has declined enormously, everywhere. I grew up in northern Mexico, where I had a few toys and one brother and three sisters. My school time was from 8 in the morning to 1 pm, with one whole hour recess sandwiched in between. I walked to school since I was in second grade (seven years old), and walked home as well (I was always late because my brother always liked to observe things closely and he walked much slower and loved to shoot things with his sling shot). It was quite a walk, and we moved almost every year for the first five or six years of elementary school so the scenery changed from year to year. Once home, eaten lunch and all of that, the rest of the afternoon was left to me and my own devices. I read, did some homework (once or twice a month we had a history or biology project but that was about it), cleaned up my room or helped mom tidying up and that was that. Then I played until it got dark. When it was too hot to play outside with the neighborhood kids, I played inside with my brother and my little sisters. Weekends involved helping mom a little around the house, but mostly playing all day, from sunrise to sundown. We invented our own games, we asked for help turning blankets into theatres, we regulated our baseball and basketball and whatever was the game of choice at the time, we directed our time. It was our time, to do with it as we pleased. Sundays was church in the morning and grandparents for a bit in the afternoon, most Sundays my mom would drive us to the town’s ice cream shop and buy us popsicles or corn on the cob. When I got older, I would go outside to the big maize field next to my house and walk through it really late (like 1 or 2 in the morning). I loved to be alone (being a teenager in a house full of younger kids was a nuisance!), to my thoughts, when the town was quiet, where everything was quiet. I spent many nights sitting on the roof of my house, looking at the sky, writing in my journal, dreaming.

The decline in play, everywhere, is mentioned in that first chapter of Free to Learn; “One significant reason for this increase in adult control over children’s lives is the ever-increasing weight of compulsory schooling. Children start school at ever younger ages. We now have not only kindergarten, but pre-kindergarten in some districts. And preschools, which precede kindergarten, are structured more and more like elementary schools - with adult-assigned tasks replacing play. The school year has grown longer, as has the school day, and opportunities for free play within the school day have largely been eliminated...Not only has the school day grown longer and less playful, but school has intruded ever more into home and family life. Assigned homework has increased, eating into time that would otherwise be available for play. Parents are now expected to be teacher’s aides. They are supposed to keep track of all the homework and special projects assigned to their kids and to coax, nag or bribe them to complete those assignments. When kids blow off their homework or perform poorly on it, parents are often made to feel guilty, as if they failed...But school has taken over children’s lives in an even more insidious way. The school system has directly and indirectly, often unintentionally, fostered an attitude in society that children learn and progress primarily by doing tasks that are directed and evaluated by adults, and that children’s own activities are wasted time...Children are increasingly encouraged or required to take adult-directed lessons and engage in adult-directed sports even out of school, rather than to play freely.”

I whole-heartedly agree with the above, otherwise I wouldn’t have transcribed it. I have seen this decline in play and freedom from when I grew up, to when my younger cousins started growing up, and felt it even more by the time my own children came to be. The reason for my own anguish was fear. Fear that the world wasn’t safe enough anymore for my little girls to play outside, by themselves. Fear of them not being “intellectually stimulated” enough, fear of stimulating them too much. Fear and more fear. Until I relaxed of course (a little), read many books mainly on waldorf education and came to the journey of doll making. 

Doll making has taught me first hand the unbelievable qualities of play and exercising your creativity. The magic that comes from letting your own imagination soar, the healing that happens when you are allowed to be yourself, to create according to your own standards, to your own tune. When you do what I do, you have no choice but to let others experience it. To let your own children be themselves, as unconstricted as possible, as free as possible, to have the time they need to find themselves in life, to learn at their own pace (it took me three and half years to develop a pattern I was extremely happy with!), to be patient. To let others experience the same joy though play, be them little or slightly older. To encourage them to play with the dolls I make. 

I know, I believe, that dolls are but tiny pieces of magic that weave their healing energy in all of those that dare to have the courage and freedom to play with them. But I fear that those who most need to play (because they are developing), our children, are constricted more and more, and we demand so much of their time on things that really don’t interest them but that sometimes they do to please us, instead of playing, inventing and regulating their own games, always under our (or somebody else’s) watchful eye. When I compare that to how I like to create, how I like to play, then I can see that no good can come of it. To have someone watching over you, telling you how to do things all the time, effecting judgement even when it is not spoken, how can you grow up to be who you are? who you truly are?. 

This post has to do with my little summer research but also with the constant analysis I do of my motives and the direction of my work. My development as a doll maker has always been tied hand in hand with the development of my children. The anguish and thoughts of a mother always land on how I approach my work and how I create. Everything I do is a statement for my children, a lesson I hope I am teaching by living. As we try to let our children learn in a more effective, peaceful and honourable way, I too look to how I create and all sorts of realizations happen. I hope all this doesn’t sound like a big jumble, but there is a point to be achieved, except not in one post all at once. 

To summarize the importance of play in our daily lives, but more importantly in the lives of our young ones, I will leave you with Friedrich Froebel’s words:

”Play, then, is the highest expression of human development in childhood, for it alone is the free expression of what is in the child’s soul. It is the purest and most spiritual product of the child, and at the same time it is a type and copy of human life at all stages and in all relations. So it induces joy, freedom, contentment and outer repose, peace with all the world. From it flows all good.”

Posted on September 1, 2013 and filed under our life, dollmaking.