August 8, 2008

The Power of Play

Alfred Adler once said, "Play is a child's work, and this is not a trivial pursuit." I like this quote because it comes from the deep recesses of my memory in the cavernous past of my college days, and because of the little futuristic pun on the game Trivial Pursuit. But all that aside, he's right, I think. When children play they are working things out, testing theories, role playing options, dealing with fears, and imagining experiences.

Robin S. Vealey from the University of Ohio-Miami claims that imagining a task is like performing it, that the mind learns new pathways and repetitive imagining blazes a trail for future success. I tell my kids, if you walk down a grassy trail several times, you'll eventually have a path, and if you practice a skill over and over again, that path gets easier to take.

Those days when all the kids want to do is play dress-up and build with Legos, I say, let them do it. Our house has been a zoo complete with stuffed animals in cages and a costumed zoo keeper, an art museum with posters and descriptive labels, a reenactment of Gilbert and Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance, a vet's office, a scientist's laboratory, a bakery, a detective agency, a hiding place for Jews in WW II, a modeling agency, an opera (there were years of Meg singing instead of talking), and the list goes on, but you get the picture.

So how does all this play really make a difference? Well, in my family it turned out like this:

Melissa, our 14 year old is "freakishly coordinated," as her older brother says. Given a little bit of time, she can do anything in the physical realm (OK, she can't fly, but...). She can climb the rock wall in our sanctuary in no time flat, she roller blades and plays hockey (backwards, while texting), at flags practice she's the one who can do maneuvers even her coach finds difficult. And my response? She's got natural ability but she has also not been sitting at a desk half her life. She's been out playing those nine years of elementary school. She's developed the skills and the confidence to try things and succeed.

When Meg started taking voice lessons a couple years ago, the teacher commented on how mature her voice was. She asked if she'd been taking voice lessons all along. No, but she's been free to sing and experiment with her voice anytime she wanted since she was born. When Meg joined a theater group two years ago, she became a leader and an example of a hard-working, talented performer. Had she taken any classes? No, just ballet when she was really small, and no acting classes of any kind. BUT she lived the theater everyday at home, even trying to corral neighborhood kids into creating a production of Treasure Island in 6th grade.

Peter chose to spend most of his time reading and exploring on the computer. That made him an expert at learning. He knows everything, as his sisters say, and if he doesn't know it, he knows how to find it. He's also discovered the fun of singing and theater and dance, thanks to Meg, and when he heads off to college in a few weeks, he already knows a lot of his fellow freshmen because of the Facebook group he started.

The freedom to play allowed my kids to truly become who they are. It seems all that work is beginning to pay off.

photos: Missa as Buzz Lightyear, Missa swinging from the harness of the rock wall, Meg as Gabriella in High School Musical, Peter and Meg in A Christmas Carol


Heather said...

What wonderful encouragement! My kids are going in a different direction but play is VERY much part of it. It is so encouraging to see what yours are doing and have done as a result of having the freedom.

Barbara Frank said...

Play is good for them, certainly, and having the opportunity for so much of it also nhallows them to build so many wonderful memories. Ditto for us moms :)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post. You wrote, "The freedom to play allowed my kids to truly become who they are." That's my strongest wish for my child -- to be able to live as her true self, and to achieve that self through "play," by which I mean her own personal path of development.

Anonymous said...

I so agree with the power of play. I can remember wanting to send my daughter to Montessouri and my husband making the point that she needs to be a kid and play for as long as possible. What a great lesson that was!!

Anonymous said...

My daughter, who is 7 years old, teaches herself to play the piano. She has developed an interesting technique, and she plays quite well.
I've been told I should let her take piano lessons. But they are what ruined me. I play strictly from my sheet music. It takes me forever to learn to play a piece of music.

My daughter on the other hand sits down and plays a melody she's heard. And if there are too many black keys, she tries a different key, until she's happy with the sound. This true talent just can't be wasted with lessons at this point. I'm not saying she should never have a teacher... but for now she's her own best teacher.

Kimmie said...

Thank you for the encouragement, as a mom to 6, with more on the way (through an adoption to Ethiopia)...well, I get tossed in a struggle between which way best fits our learning style, with a constant tug to make 'us' fit into how it works for 'others.'

mama to 6
one homemade and 5 adopted

Karen said...

My 8 year-old spends his play time acting out elaborate Pokemon journeys and Yu-Gi-Oh duels; my 4 year-old sings, dances, and creates beautiful, elaborate patterns from objects he finds around the house. It's wonderful to watch them play, and to know that embedded in their play is learning too.
Thank you for this post, it's a necessary reminder of how important a 'job' our kids have!

At A Hen's Pace said...

Finally I have time to come back and comment! This one and the next one, on waiting, are so encouraging!


Unknown said...

I LOVE play. My favorite part of being an unschooling mom is being in the other room and quietly listening to my 10 and 12 year old play together. They still have such an imagination! And I see this imagination come out in their writing and storytelling. Play is truly amazing.

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