“Bye Mom, I’m going to my work!”

I often wonder what my children make of this COVID-19 quarantine. At 1 and 3 years old, they don’t understand words like “germs”, “pandemic”, or “global health crisis”. The younger seems to operate business-as-usual, with a notably lower tolerance for car rides since they are now so infrequent. For his older brother, though, the changes in our daily life have not gone unnoticed. He wonders why the playground is still broken (cordoned off with caution tape), why his friends don’t come over as much, and suggests we go to the store – even though he hasn’t stepped foot in a store since early March. The biggest change to our routine was the same faced by many around the world: teleworking. 

One day, several weeks into having the master bedroom doubling as an office, my 3-year-old called casually over his shoulder, “Bye, Mom, I’m going to work”. Curious, I followed him down the hall to his room. He had begun setting up his wooden train track and told me matter-of-factly, “This is my work Mom”. Maria Montessori’s voice echoed in my ear, “Play is the work of the child.” 

And so it is. Play is crucial to healthy child development – socially, physically, emotionally, and even academically. My favorite Fred Rogers quote: “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning, but for children, play is serious learning.” My son’s quip about his play being his “work” like Daddy’s, working in his home office, got me to thinking about a child’s play. This silly little side product of childhood that many adults remember fondly but don’t really give much weight.

The Purpose of Play

1. Play helps children process events and understand their surroundings

Children in all cultures play. Their play mimics their realities and serves as a way to process the life around them. When my husband’s job moved back to the office, I noticed a theme in my preschooler’s play: daddy characters leaving to go to work, calling out cheerful goodbyes and “see you when I get home from work!” Although we never discussed it formally, he was processing the change of routine the same way he had adjusted to the concept of telework: through play. It is through play that children process and unpack their environments to handle changes. 

A report in the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics put it this way: “Play allows children to create and explore a world they can master, conquering their fears while practicing adult roles, sometimes in conjunction with other children or adult caregivers”1

2. Play helps children practice social skills

Through play, children navigate social mores like sharing and the politics of the group. First through “parallel play” (side-by-side) and then through cooperative efforts, “Undirected play allows children to learn how to work in groups, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts, and to learn self-advocacy skills”2 Children playing a game in a group setting (with no adult intervention) will learn lessons like (from Peter Gray’s Free to Learn):

  • To keep the game going, you have to keep everyone happy
  • Rules are modifiable and play-generated
  • Conflicts are settled by arguments, negotiation, and compromise
  • There is no real difference between players
  • Playing well and having fun really are more important than winning

These skills result in a well-rounded and sociable adult able to interact positively and effectively on a variety of planes.

3. Play allows children to explore their senses and abilities

Playing as a way to explore their surrounding through the senses seems obvious – children interacting with their environment are almost expected to use their five senses to explore new items and learn about their world. But have you thought about how play helps children develop their abilities and skills, even academic ones like reading and writing? Renowned educator Vivian Gussin Paley in A Child’s Work says, “In dramatic play, language becomes more vivid and spontaneous, enabling young children to connect with greater fluency and curiosity, the words and phrases they know to new ideas”3 Through play, children – freed of the seriousness of adult interactions and judgement – practice new words and ideas, learning what works and refining their skills.

“Play is the life-long practice of trying out new ideas”

Vivian Gussin Paley

Conclusion:

Play is crucial to development – social, emotional, physical, and even academic. It can be hard to take seriously, especially when most of it seems ridiculous and nonsensical, but play is a master stroke. Unfortunately, it is also an endangered species. In speaking about the decreasing amount of play in public schools (both in lessons and in free time), Vivian Gussin Paley warns, “What we are in danger of doing is delegitimatizing mankind’s oldest and best-used learning tool”4

In the uncertainty of COVID-19 – the park and school closures, the curtailed playdates, sudden teleworking – to say nothing of the social and political upheaval of the last few weeks, children need play more than ever to process this rollercoaster of a year. I may not ever know what my young boys think of all of *everything* right now, but by observing their undirected play, I get a glimpse. Play is a sneak peek into the mind of the child. Play is a balm and a teacher. It soothes as well as explains, entertains as it helps make sense of their world.

Play is more than the work of children; it is their calling, their vocation, their life’s purpose.

“Perhaps play would be more respected if we called it something like “self-motivated practice of life skills,’ but that would remove the lightheartedness from it and thereby reduce its effectiveness. So, we are stuck with the paradox. We must accept play’s triviality in order to realize its profundity.”

Peter Gray, Free to Learn

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