There is a pile of presents waiting for a child to open them. They are beautifully wrapped. Good thinking has gone into the preparation for this time. The gifts have been chosen with care.
The child pulls off the wrappings opens up the box inside and pulls out the toy. It is a fancy gizmo that bleeps and purrs when buttons are pushed. It flashes and sings and the child sits and watches it. The adults cheer and coo.
The child watches as the toy plays.
Half an hour later, the adults are thinking of something else and the child is wearing the box on their head, or trying to climb inside it, or putting stuff into it or making it a dolls house.
It is a cliché to say it, but children really do often prefer to play with the boxes rather than the toys.
Why is that?
Could it be that the box is a thing that children can use as they want to? It can be anything that they need it to be. It can be a fire-fighters helmet, or a car, or a shopping basket or a home for their invisible friends. It is adaptable and simple. They are in charge of their playing with their imagination and their skills when they play with this object. They are freely choosing what they need to play at and creating, for themselves, the resources they need to do it.
You go to a local park, through the little fence that marks out the special area where children are allowed to play. After a few moments of scrambling over the primary coloured bent metal frames, they notice a sprinkler nearby, sloshing into the play area onto some grass and mud and leaves. The children gravitate towards this space and start to float leaves like boats, dam the streams of trickling water to make puddles which they splash in or stir up as potions.
Why is that?
Could it be that the bent metal frames offer them only one sort of playing? Big body movements are good, but it is also exciting to control the flow of water and imagine seas and lakes, feel the textures of water and mud, imagine that you have created a world where you can sail the seas and visit far away lands and do battle with pirates?
Does the smell of water hitting dry earth appeal?
What does that perfect sphere of water look like when it hits the dry dust?
Do you see rainbows as the water sprays through the sun bursts?
What miracles are hidden there to be explored?
A group of adults think about their playing in childhood, they will start to tell stories. These stories will be about playing in streams, or digging in sand or mud. They will talk about climbing trees and making dens. There is a sense that they felt time stretching out as they played.
Very often the stories will be about being outside and playing with the environments around them.
They will seldom mention adults involved in their playing or organised activities.
A dreamy look will come over them.
The memories will be complete body memories. They will speak about the way things felt to their bodies or minds, about scuffing knees and feeling brave. The smells will be vivid to them so will textures and the way things looked.They will remember sounds and words and imaginary games in worlds that they created that felt realer than the ‘real world’. These memories will be similar wherever they grew up. From Africa or Scandinavia, urban or rural, children will have played with nature, played chase and hidden: built dens and looked after ‘babies’.
Why is this?
Playing seems to be a universal first language of children.
All over the world children feel the urge to play in similar ways. There is a theory that suggests that in playing children are learning the survival mechanisms of human kind. We need to now how to build shelters, how to care for babies, how to manipulate water, climb to safe places, hide, hunt, grow things use fire for warmth and light, swim, run, build communities and communicate.
Children who spend all their time at school or study or sport or organised clubs, whose life is planned out and supervised in minute detail by adults.
How do those children find the time and space to discover the things they need to teach themselves?
How do they discover what it feels like to be
alone or with other children?
How do they find out what they can do?
How do they discover their own creativity?
Their own internal landscape.
When they are small, children need us to look after every single bit of their lives because they cannot do it by themselves. We even have to protect them from gravity, because their bodies cannot manage even that job.
As they grow in body and mind, they learn that they can have a little more independence from us and we learn that they can cope with it. Eventually they find their abilities flourish and we find that we can show them ways to function safely in the world by them selves.
Children move along a pathway which starts with them depending on us absolutely, through a time when they find out that they can be alone, while we watch from a distance, until eventually they arrive at a point where they are fully independent.
Sometimes, as adults, we need to know that the best we can do for our children is to give them time and space to play and find things out for themselves while we watch, from a distance. We protect this play experience for them to show them that it is important. By watching them play, we validate the experience for them, by letting them know that we think it is important.
Childhood is not a preparation for adulthood, but a process of discovery and experience. It is about being in the now.
A playground where children can play with bits and pieces that they can use however they want to. Where they can create their own possibilities of their world. Where adults support their playing, they watch it. They help, if help is needed, in gentle clever ways. The children are trusted to discover the world through their own playing.
This is possible.
You can do it yourself for your children. arrange for a time with nothing planned. Give them a cardboard box and some fabric to play with and step back and watch. Let them work things out as much as you can, without the children feeling unsafe. As they are play, watch and learn from them as they discover how to manipulate manoeuvre the world and negotiate with each other. Listen as they tell you stories of their playing.
Watch as their personal worlds unfurl into fabulous blooms that we could never have anticipated.
A mother might want her son to become an artist, but he may discover that he wants to study law. A daughter may want to be an explorer, but if she is forced down the path of nursing, she will never fulfil her dreams and aspirations.
Children need to discover their own passions, not ours.
A windswept train station and a family waiting just the wrong length of time for a train. Parents, bored and fed up, start to think of ways to entertain the children. But boy child the spots a place where patches of moss have grown underneath a drip from the roof. He calls his little sister over and they crouch down to peer. Using their combined imaginations, they bring to life the worlds of this archipelago society with its different faiths and mythologies and trades and customs.
The dull platform springs alive with stories so vivid that the adults can see them almost as clearly as the children can.
They stand back and watch and listen.
The children are playing.
This playing will live on in the mythology of their childhood.
A ten year old girl tells me off.
’My friends are not imaginary. They are invisible’.
She means they are real and important in her life and I should not belittle them with clumsy adult words.
So I back away and watch while she and her friends, visible and invisible, all wearing dressing up clothes, build a den. Her older brother and his friends blow bubbles into a hole in the ground they have just dug.
March 10th 2008
To be used only with the authour’s permission.