The Serious Business of Play

"I do everything I can to help my child learn," says the mother of a little girl who recently turned three. "Ever since she was two, we work every day with flashcards -- first with letters and colors, then progressing to words. I buy her all the educational and developmental playthings on the market, and I make sure that her time isnít wasted -- that itís spent learning. I love my child, and want her to have every advantage by the time she gets to kindergarten."

Another mother looks out the window, where her three-year-old is playing in the back yard. He crawls through an empty appliance box, grinning in delight as he moves his body through the cardboard tunnel. Once out, he discovers his own image in a puddle, then gathers leaves to float in this new "ocean." The mother smiles. "I love my child, and want him to have every advantage by the time he gets to kindergarten," she maintains.

Okay, which mom is getting it right?

Well, in a sense, both are. Although there should be a place in a childís day for learning activities, childhood is a time for play -- and that is serious work. In the first five years of their lives, children learn to make friends, enter group situations, play in small groups, ask for what they want, accept a "no" response, negotiate for what they want and to express their feelings in useful ways. They also learn to make mistakes and move on, keep trying, use words for conflict resolution, and fill their time on their own.

Each of these is an important social skill, essential for life in society well into adulthood. However, itís impossible to learn these skills from flashcards. No, the best way to master these skills is through play.

"Play may be the serious business of childhood," says Marianne Torbert, director of the Leonard Gordon Institute for Human Development through Play at Temple University. "If I had my way, Iíd let kids play until they were 12, then go to school."

"Itís not just a game. Itís a developmental experience," explains Torbert, the author of Everyone Plays; Everyone Wins and Follow Me: A Handbook of Movement Activities for Children. "Play may be the key to open many doors later on in life."

Children need play in order to learn of the bigger world from the safety of a game. Play allows the child to try new things without the pressure to succeed that is often associated with institutionalized "educational activities." Playing allows the child to develop imagination and creativity, and offers opportunity to learn such skills as listening, sharing, and planning.

"Play has a part in our lives from the very beginning," says Torbert, noting that even infants coo and gurgle while watching a mobile from their cribs. "Play begins on a solitary level, then progresses to other people."

And, of course, a childís very first playmate is usually Mom or Dad. "Parents should begin to play with infants from the very beginning!" says Janet A. Lohan, RN and assistant professor at the Washington State University College of Nursing. "Talking to newborns is incredibly important in language development. Babies are fascinated by human faces.

"There is strong research evidence that a stimulating environment that includes toys and people contributes to the formation of new dendrites in the brain," Lohan says. "These dendrites increase the connections between neurons, and help organize the brainís functions."

As a child grows, his pool of playmates expands to include other children. "At 3, children play at a common task. Itís usually a group of individuals doing the same thing," Torbert says. "By the time they reach 4 or 5, they become a community. They interact, and play becomes more social."

"Interaction with other children is less important before preschool, but becomes increasingly important as the child grows older," Lohan agrees. "Language skill is crucial in being able to Ďget in the gameí and social activities are very important in teaching children about sharing, negotiating, and compromising."

Torbert stresses the importance of letting childhood play be play of inclusion, not exclusion or elimination. "Children learn about life and themselves through play," she says. "At the age at which musical chairs becomes a popular game, children are beginning to enjoy participating together in a somewhat loosely organized structure. What is a child really learning in this game? ĎGrabbing a chair for myself is what really pays off, so itís me first, even if I have to knock my new friend out of the way.í Can being eliminated in musical chairs teach children that they are losers?" Torbert asks.

She suggests that parents create variations of the traditional games to encourage social interaction. "Instead of musical chairs, we play islands. When the music stops, the playersí challenge is to get all the players on the islands. Now each player can participate at his own level of ability. If an island (chair, rug, cardboard square) is taken away, the players need to help each other in order to successfully complete the task of trying to get everyone on the remaining islands. Now, instead of an elimination process, weíve created an interactive challenge," Torbert says.

So if play is so important, why is an "anti-play" attitude so prevalent in todayís society? Well, most of us are time-conscious and future-minded -- and we want our children to value the same things. We want to see results and are critical of our own mistakes. We may even believe that the benefits of play -- imagination, creativity, fun -- may lead to bad work habits later on.

However, according to the National PTA, we must understand that young children learn in ways that are different from adults. As we learn to value and appreciate childrenís play, we recognize that something meaningful and important is involved when children -- or people in general -- enjoy something so much they seek it with the drive and intensity that children seek play.

So let that little boy play in the puddle. Heís not merely floating leaves -- heís investigating the world around him, developing his curiosity, growing in sensory awareness and nurturing an appreciation of beauty and order in nature.

And donít dismiss that little guy in the cardboard tunnel. Heís discovering how his body moves, developing large muscles and appreciating the joy of being physically active.

So if your little one is shrugging off the flashcards, but playing with the box they came in, donít despair. After all, heís only doing his job -- one thatís important for his pleasure today, and his success tomorrow.