Old-Fashioned Play

I recently read about an NPR story at unplugyourkids. It talked about how a preschool program called "Tools of the Mind" is training kids to regulate behaviors and emotions through play. Their premise is that old-fashioned play is important in building social and behavioral skills. However, the program calls for kids to script their play before actually playing. The comment section illustrates how parents are unsure of how to teach their children to play and worried about how to keep it "educational." Even a kindergarten teacher wanted to know how long play should be allowed--the advice was "30-40 minutes a day."

I find it sad that more and more kids need to be taught how to play. I began to think back to when Lou and Hels were young and what their play was like. There would be some days when silks, blocks, and toys would be strewn from one end of the house to the other. Chairs would be rearranged and walking would be hazardous. We used to joke that the bigger the mess, the better the play.

The very best play days came about when I was also busy about the house. I found that if I was up and about the house tidying, doing laundry, cooking or whatever, the kids would settle into deep, imaginative worlds. Whenever I'd sit down at the computer or with a book, they'd be all over me (still true). I think that my work about the house provided them with a bit of security. My energy provided a bit of form or ego presence within which they could then feel free to just go.

In retrospect, it's a little similar to the energy in a Waldorf kindergarten. The teacher stays busy at classroom chores while the kids play, and play, and play. When there's an issue, the child involved gets drawn into the teacher's work and then is let loose back into the play again. There's an active adult busy with her own work, yet providing formed energy and presence in the classroom.

Hels and especially Lou still occasionally engage in deep creative play. Of course it has evolved since they were young. For Lou, the play is all about setting up the scenario. She doesn't play out the scenario much anymore. Hels, at almost 12, will also occasionally go to some other world of fairies or knights or who knows what. It makes me very happy when I see my young adolescent play--she's still learning a lot through it.

I think it's easy to buy or make the types of toys we all know that spark creativity and engagement. It's harder to figure out what we as adults need to do to create the space from which creativity can emerge. Sometimes, it's just doing our own work about the house, so the kids can get on with their work of play. We need to create the space, but we don't need to script it.


My hope for our girls is that, as they grow older, they'll carry the sparks of creativity and the social lessons they've learned from play into all aspects of their lives.

Mom Unplugged  – (March 1, 2008 at 12:54 PM)  

Hi Sarah,

Thanks for your comment (and link). I agree with you that people worry too much about orchestrating their children's play. The focus nowadays seems to be about providing "an enriching" environment for children at home, and in after-school activities. Kids aren't allowed to be bored anymore.

When I first started blogging I was shocked by the number of people who seem to have their toddlers days planned from morning until night with "enriching" learning and crafts. My philosophy has always been to let the kids run loose in the house or outside (with me nearby of course when they are little) while I "do my thing." I don't want to spend my whole day engaged one-on-one with my kids.

This discovery about imaginative, unsupervised play being beneficial makes me feel a whole lot better about what I thought was perhaps a "slacker" attitude on my part! (I feel a post coming on too...)

Enjoy your weekend!

anthromama  – (March 1, 2008 at 2:41 PM)  

Wow, 30-40 minutes of play allowed per day. How...generous. I have no idea where they came up with that! And did they really use the word "allowed"?

If anyone figures out a way to get kids to play while their parents read, I'll nominate them for the Nobel Peace Prize :)

My son tends to want more interaction with me, while my daughter will easily be off in her own world for long periods. I've struggled with the feeling of being a "slacker" too, if I'm not directly engaged with them.

Tara  – (March 1, 2008 at 5:27 PM)  

I read this article as well and left it with a tangle of thoughts and some bunched up knickers. Most of the kids at the new school will not engage in play anymore... they are too "old"... but Tess still happily plays with her friends from the old school and some of the younger neighborhood kids or the children she babysits. It's kind of ironic. They all have expensive gaming equipment and such but like coming to play a our house because we have none of that and they get to play games like hide and seek, vet's office, library or tongue twisters and hand clapping games, which they think are pretty cool.

Lisa Anne  – (March 1, 2008 at 5:59 PM)  

I have been lucky enough to work in a Waldorf Kindergarten for a few years before moving here, some children come into the classroom and actually do not know how to play, for most it only takes a few weeks after watching the other children to engage in imaginative, meaningful play. For some children whose lives are filled with media images or over scheduled lives, they never quite catch on, they constantly reenact what they see on TV, mostly they play over and over the violent images they see on TV, its as though they do not know how to digest those images and the only way to deal with them is to act it out in their play time. For those children we give them lots of meaningful work in the classroom because they cannot play, its so sad. Its very hard to get through to those parents about the affects of Media, but at least they are in a Waldorf school and maybe it will affect their life positively somehow.

Dawn  – (March 1, 2008 at 8:15 PM)  

I appreciated this post so much Sarah. I think you're right about the adult needing to keep busy moving around the house with their own tasks in order to encourage more creative play. I know that as soon as my kids see me working at the computer or reading, they want my attention. I've been getting up earlier recently so that I could still blog and not have it interfere with my family life during the day and it has helped so much. My kids unfortunately have had too much t.v. viewing in their lives and now I have the task of trying to encourage them to play on their own- it's difficult sometimes and I like to read your blog because I learn so much from you about how to do this.

maymomvt (or Sarah)  – (March 2, 2008 at 7:02 AM)  

Lisa Anne--I've seen the same. I'm close to a family whose teens had very scheduled childhoods--theater, sports, music every afternoon, evening, and Saturday morning. As teens, they have pulled back from some of these activities, but now do not know what to do with themselves. Then then dig into their media and further disconnect. It's interesting to be looking at it all from the teen angle now and to see how the play skills they develop when young can influence the teen years.

Tammy  – (March 2, 2008 at 10:01 AM)  

"I find it sad that more and more kids need to be taught how to play."

Me too! I really enjoyed reading your blog. :)

Jennifer  – (March 2, 2008 at 10:10 AM)  

What a great reminder - and I had not thought about how when I am at work about the house, they play more, and when I am occupied with a book or the computer, they swarm (mine just left a very creative play moment to come stand by me when the computer screen opened up). That alone should make a huge difference in our house this week - thanks.

Poppy & Mei  – (March 4, 2008 at 11:06 PM)  

O.K. What are the kids doing before & after this 40 mins of play? I don't get it. What else is there to do when you are a kid?
My kids are just like yours. If I'm working, they're "working"...Xxx

Grace  – (March 6, 2008 at 8:13 PM)  

such an important post. thank you for putting this on the front burner for me again. xox

Gypsy  – (May 17, 2008 at 5:31 AM)  

What a great post - I know its an old one but I missed it. This kind of play is so important, and so sadly undervalued. I love the Mittnens stuff in your sidebar - its gold!

Gypsy  – (May 17, 2008 at 5:31 AM)  

What a great post - I know its an old one but I missed it. This kind of play is so important, and so sadly undervalued. I love the Mittnens stuff in your sidebar - its gold!

Helen  – (March 9, 2009 at 10:15 PM)  

GREAT post..i totally relate to what you are saying. For me it's all about being fully engaged in the rythm of the day..

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