When we, as adults, think of play, we often think of kicking back, vacationing, etc. We understand play as the opposite of work and in some ways a waste of time. This is not the case for children. Play and learning go hand in hand for young children, and the perception of time itself is quite different. Young children feel that time is wasted unless they can move about freely and engage their imagination. It can almost be a painful experience for a child to wait in line at the store or stop an activity prematurely. Or, as one child, Mikey, said to his mother when she asked him what words she could use to make him stop what he was doing, “There are no words because I am not finished.”
Creative intelligence is not inborn. Creativity is an expression of one’s impressions. Stop for a minute and remember what it was like to be a child. When we were children, we created our inner world by first connecting with the world around us. We did this instinctively through our five senses by building a bank of impressions. Then we required a certain amount of independence so we could be free to immerse ourselves in creative play, trying on all the roles and possibilities available in order to expand. In order to become, we lived in the Now.
Richard Lewis, founder and director of the Touchstone Center for Children and author of “When Thought is Young,” wrote: “Perhaps it is part of the genius of childhood to integrate play and imagining into one seamless activity. A way in which the life of our minds and our bodies are in dialogue with each other.”
Nevertheless, the trend in many schools today is a transformation of preschool and kindergarten into a curriculum that shoves early childhood development into “standards” more appropriate for first grade learners, thus filling children at an earlier age with what they will need to know at a later age. While it is true that children can learn effortlessly at a young age that which would take effort and study at a later age, it is not developmentally appropriate to place them in a rigid learning environment that does not respond to their rhythm. On the other hand, providing a rich and carefully prepared environment, based on the principals of liberty, affords children the opportunity to unfold naturally and create themselves.
In early childhood education, we should “follow the child.” In my early childhood Montessori classrooms, the children choose activities or are invited in to activities by the teacher, just as he or she would be invited in to play by another child. The children are allowed to immerse themselves in their chosen activity based in fluid time with few restraints. Through their hands and five senses, they explore, discover, create and imagine while building a deep ability to concentrate. Little do they know that they are creating new pathways and strengthening synapses in their brains.
Parents need to understand the importance of fluid time in their young children’s lives as well as valuing the importance of play. As often as possible, parents should play with their children, especially when invited. Some of my fondest memories from childhood are playing with my mother. The neighborhood children would gather in my yard in the evenings as the heat lightning would light up the sky, all of us barefoot on the spongy Saint Augustine grass, playing Mother May I and Simon Says.
Jean Piaget said that children learn “mutual respect” when rules are made by a child or his playmates while, for example, playing a game like tag and deciding where “safe” will be. Self-initiated play is the stage where mutual respect can be played out. This is where adults, playing with their children, can help by modeling and then stepping back. Adults can also help by creating the fertile ground—the environment filled with hands-on materials to which children are naturally drawn and can learn by discovery.
Now that the gift giving time is upon us, put some thought into the toys and games that you select for your children. Open-ended play materials such as water, sand, blocks and clay allow for the greatest variety of use. With more and more academics being offered in schools, the make believe time that you can create for your children at home is more valuable than ever. Encourage your children to get hands-on with nature. Allow for some safe rough-and-tumble play. Play together and make your fondest memories theirs.