“Play is the work of the child.” – Maria Montessori
Kids love to play. Playing helps them to be happy, to explore, to create original thoughts and to express themselves without guidance. Most importantly, playing helps children make sense of the world around them.
The first independent learning that a child will ever experience, is through play. Playing is a such a powerful thing!
Obviously, I have been watching children play all my life. As an educator, I have been observing children play for as long as I can remember being a teacher (nearly 17 years to date 🙂 ).
Yet I never fully appreciated the POWER in their playing – until I started teaching English (with Spanish and French as occasional lessons), in a Montessori school, seven years ago. It was in such an environment that I finally “got it” about why play is so important and so powerful. For the first time, I started to see children playing with new eyes. This was not just play I was observing. This was work.
Have you ever taken care of a child (or spent time with your own child or students), and said something to that child, while he or she was playing – only to find your words falling on deaf ears? Have you ever had to physically interrupt your child from playing – a tap on the shoulder, for example, because, lost in the deep focus of the play activity, that was the only way the child could “hear” you?
If your answer is yes, then that is not surprising at all, because what you observed was far more than just play. A child working on an art project – whether devised by the teacher, parent or by the child, is using the hands to create something first devised by the mind, or to realise something tangible without having a goal initially, but to “see what will happen” with the materials once the work is done. According to philosopher and pedagogue Maria Montessori, the child “does it with his hands, by experience, first in play and then through work. The hands are the instruments of man’s intelligence.” (The Absorbent Mind, p. 25.) And if a child’s play can be considered by its own, intrinsic value, as a means to identify and solve problems, experiment with data and formulate questions (responding to the world around him or her as experienced with all five senses) and indulge in his or her curiosity about the outcomes of his or her play, it is work in a child’s eyes.
This is true even if the child is not highly conscious of the fact that he or she has actually done anything that is work in the conventional sense of the word: it can be guided or it can be 100 percent agenda-free. There is fantasy play with dolls and toy animals that are given a voice, where life is breathed into them through the voice and hands of the child. I am talking about a child mesmerised by the feeling of various materials (modelling clay, sand, mud, different types of paper) between the fingers. I am thinking about the quirky things that children do when they are given funny toys and told to simply create stories with those toys, and how they enjoy making a doll character “smell the breath” of a “dead [toy] dinosaur”, or tickle the feet of a “sleeping” plush toy gorilla to “see” (or decide 😉 ) what that great big, fearsome animal will do to the “tickler” when he wakes up.
Then there is also fantasy play that does include an agenda – an academic one that includes real people from our time or from the past. I use lots famous people in my English workshops- and the learning of culture they represent or contribute to the world. Encouraging make-believe not only “involves multiple perspectives and the playful manipulation of ideas and emotions that reflect a critical feature of the child’s cognitive and social development” for the normal development of a child (Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D., Beautiful Minds, 2012), but gives a teacher a chance to engage children in learning about the great minds of scientists and artists and the work those masters did which, like children, was “play ‘at work'”:
Below, a second grade boy impersonates Leonardo Da Vinci. His contemporaries complained that he took ages to complete a task or never completed it at all, in addition to abandoning it to take up something else.
Below, Degas, played by a third grade girl, is grumpy because his “work is interrupted” by the curious class members. They are happy to learn about impressionism and art history, through make-believe:
Kaufman also talks about “the important concept of ‘theory of mind,’ [as] an awareness that one’s thoughts may differ from those of other persons and that there are a variety of perspectives of which each of us is capable, is closely related to imaginative play.” (Jenkins & Astington, 2000; Leslie, 1987; Singer & Singer, 1990; Singer & Singer, 2005).
Play is what children do best. We have all done it, and our children do it too. It is a very special kind of work that gives pleasure and therefore motivation.
Back in the 5th century B.C., Confucius said: “If you love what you do, you never work a day in your life”. If this is true, then play is every child (and adult’s) opportunity to do something that is both pleasurable and useful. Play gives children the chance to practice what they are working on, the chance to practice what they are learning. “Play is the work of the child”, said Maria Montessori at the start of the 20th century. By extension, she continues to say that “a child’s work is the man [or woman] who he [or she] will become.”
The Power of Play: What are the benefits that the child (and his or her family) get to enjoy? What are the powers?
- Problem-solving: Play helps a child to develop all these wonderful and necessary life skills. How about the child that understands how frustrating but necessary it is to do something over and over again in order to produce a result, despite countless failures? Below, a “scientist” is given a gift of two robots for his birthday. When the robot does not follow his commands properly because it is not yet “programmed properly”, the “scientist” must keep trying to fix the problem, the way he sees his parents do, in the adult world. And when the robots are finally programmed, the scientist discovers the irony of the statement “Be careful what you wish for …” :
2. Practicing empathy and tolerance: how many times have we seen children pretending to be a mother comforting a child? Or pretending to work in a zoo, “washing and feeding” the animals?
Or practicing what they are taught regarding loyalty and kindness to those who love them?As wisely stated by Scott Barry Kaufmann (Beautiful Minds, 2012): “When children use toys to introduce possible scenarios or friends, the representation of multiple perspectives occurs naturally.”
In the “sequel” to the above video, evil does not ultimately triumph; the young student chooses, in his subsequent English workshop, to have a natural catastrophe kill Darth Vader – using the same meteor that fell on Earth and caused the extinction of the dinosaurs! See below:
3. Play allows for what psychologist Sandra Russ (2004) calls divergent thinking (the ability to come up with many different ideas, story themes, and symbols) and reinforcement of previous learning – including the learning of academic subjects, historical notions and cultural practices from around the world. Given a bunch of toys, and breathing life into them, a child can both internalise and integrate elements of a teacher’s lesson (the culture content which I always include in my English lessons) into his play. I tell a second grader who loves Star Wars about the tradition of English knighthood, both medieval and modern and this is what he comes up with:
The above video also shows another component and benefit of the power of play – laughter and creativity – which lead us to #5, below:
5. CREATIVITY! I call it “a child’s magic realism“. I love the oxymoron of the words “magic realism”. And I love its definition by Merriam Webster. “a literary genre or style [associated especially with Latin America] that incorporates fantastic or mythical elements into otherwise realistic fiction.” Watch the video below for an example of a child’s magic realism – putting Frida Khalo, Mozart, Beethoven, a T-Rex and a Firefly together into a Mexican jungle and creating a story. Pure creative genius that comes from the power of play:
There is also Magical Realism that involves other Famous People : Take Gandhi, who lost his sandal, for example – a cute little improvisation entirely thought up by a first grader, on the spot!
Or the toy lobster (“Mr. Lobster”) who has committed some “crime” and is now in “court”. What will be the final verdict?
Sometimes play is too much fun for me not to get involved. I love toys as much as children do! I want to play as well. In English, of course!
Our class restaurant is irresistible:
Watch the five year old waiter in this video improve his service skills as he progresses through the role play, and how well he (and the others) learn English expressions for use in the restaurant – and the kids’ spontaneous improvisation throughout this little video. I love their creative “in the moment” contributions, mixed in with my suggestions.
Long live the power of a child’s play … and the power of the imagination!