Parenting psychologist, counsellor and author Naomi Aldort says that traditional learning structures and formal activities are not the best way for our children to reach their full potential or to get what they really want out of life – to learn.
“If children played all their childhood… they would be ready for life and have all the basic skills to handle it,” she says. “Our anxiety for children to know certain things at specific ages is an enormous obstacle to trusting and allowing their natural development.”
Children are biologically designed to be curious, explains Naomi – so why do so many parents see play as something to be added to a schedule, rather than the main item on the daily menu?
“From birth, children want to know and figure out everything. They are driven to succeed. They are constantly challenging themselves and can accomplish [this learning]through a biologically implanted process that we call play.”
There is a wealth of research supporting the positive effects of creative play. Studies link creative play to language, physical, cognitive and social development, according to a report by Canada’s Department of Education and Early Childhood Development.
It’s also interesting to note a report by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, which states that many educators have seen play change from what it was 20-30 years ago. These days, young children spend more time playing alone rather than playing with their peers at home – and “graduate” from educational toys to video and computer games.
The importance of self-initiated play
The most effective form of play, in terms of growth and learning, is self-initiated, self-directed play, says Naomi.
“Our intervention and input actually gets in the way. To foster such play, we need to get out of the way and get manipulative toys out of the way as well. It is obvious why negative input is destructive, but not so obvious that positive input is just as destructive.”
For example, when two-year-old Nathan is building a tower of blocks just for himself, and not for an audience, he is “driven by a pure interest and joy of creation and learning”. However, when his dad looks at his creation and exclaims enthusiasm, Nathan shifts his interest from his blocks to the purpose of inducing an enthusiastic reaction from his dad. This can build up over the years to a dependency upon adult evaluation and result in a lack of self-trust and a loss of interest in “doing” for its own sake. “The pleasing child is constantly dependent upon his success to live up to parental expectations and can lose touch with who he really is, and what he is interested in,” explains Naomi.
Two types of play
Naomi identifies two important types of play within the self-initiated, self-directed model: science and social/emotional play.
- Science play happens when children are learning “the nature of a phenomenon” – their own homes and gardens are the perfect laboratories in which to experiment.
“Children who have access to nature (a garden, trees, sand, stones and sticks), as well as the kitchen and all other safe items and furniture inside the home, will make a lab of reality out of every space.
“When visitors come to my home and it isn’t tidy, I say as a matter of fact, ‘Oh, excuse the mess, there are three young scientists studying reality.’ The methods of children are identical to those of scientists. Manipulate and observe, listen or sense the results, and so on,” says Naomi. The most basic things become grand experiments of learning, she explains. Headbands, for example, become arrows to shoot at a target; a swing is twisted and then twirled the other way; metal, wood and plastic pots, pans and spoons make different noises when banged.
“For children, life is play and play is learning. The possibilities are endless. Even though they don’t always put what they have learnt into words or equations, they do learn,” says Naomi.
“Naming things isn’t the discovery – it’s grasping the phenomenon itself that matters. In science play, children experience reality as well as learn about their own power to create and influence scientific phenomena.”
- Social and emotional play is any play that includes more than one person, says Naomi.
“When a child plays with another (of any age, including adults), social skills are being learnt as the other person’s feelings and needs have to be taken into account.
“Specific social training occurs when children ‘rehearse’ life. Pretend games in which children play roles of parents, animals and plants is a way to assimilate reality, alleviate fears and try things out.”
It’s also fascinating to see how, as children grow, they follow rules, limits and forms of discipline within their own games.
“Rules pass from generation to generation or are created as needed, and children keep the rules and learn social grace, discipline and limits,” says Naomi.
Let them play
There are several advantages to allowing children to direct their own play, says Naomi.
- They’re likely to “do exactly what is best for them emotionally, intellectually and socially”.
- There is “no worry about age appropriateness and no guesswork about what or how to play or learn”.
- Adequate exposure to “needed information” is mostly taken care of, with children sharing our lives and observing and learning as they do.
Children, when allowed to play and direct their own paths, will “study anything to get them where they want to go”.
Real toys, real play
The best toys are those that don’t force a particular outcome for a child, says Naomi. These include:
- Blank paper and paints
- Plain blocks
- Pots and pans
- Dress-up clothes
- Plainly-made dolls
- Gardening tools
- Outdoor riding and climbing toys (ladder, wagon, hanging bars)
- Common household items for imitating activities (cleaning, cooking, fixing, building).
“Stay away from designs that dictate specific results or that direct the outcome of a child’s play, and that discourage the input of a child’s thought process,” she says.
Beth Cooper Howell is a freelance journalist based in the Eastern Cape. She has a keen interest in holistic health and progressive parenting. She has written a book on breastfeeding, enjoys interviewing experts on cutting-edge parenting topics and believes that nothing beats being barefoot in the veld.