Play is a Process

By Dan Rees-Jones

A mum is walking slowly with a pushchair in tow with her two young children running around her.

It’s a familiar scene, they are heading towards the Community Farm and Café. A popular venue with parents of young children boasting a small adventure play area, lovely café and a lively farm complete with entertaining goats.

I live close by and on this particular morning I was also heading in the same direction with my young daughter who like pretty much all young children is interested in anything and everything! The children were also being quite easily distracted from the task of walking to the farm this morning too…..

The first diversion started opposite our house where there is a low wooden wall made out of sleepers, 2 deep. This created an enticing prospect for the children, which quickly turned into a game of balancing on and along the wall whilst ducking under foliage, jumping off, running back along the pavement and then repeating the process.

After a couple of this minutes mum beckoned for them to come along and cross over the road.

On the other side of the road a steep triangular pathway created the scene for the next game.

Running fast down the steep path whilst shrieking then running back along to the top part in order to repeat the process.

Mum tolerated this for a bit and then beckoned them on again towards the tunnel.

As you can imagine (by the audio example at the beginning) this provided a fantastic platform for screaming, shouting and whooping as well as the opportunity to pick at the colourful, crumbling, graffiti. Progress to the farm was proving to be slow this morning.

Eventually at the other end of the tunnel (the farm within reach) an unusual bit of urban design consisting of some upturned pebbles in cement provided the opportunity for children to do some funny walking and balancing which unfortunately acts as an enticing toilet for domestic animals too.

Not a great combo. Mum didn’t think so either and was quick to move them on…. But not too far….

10 yards further on a handy low chain across some garages created yet another diversion as a hilarious swing and object to jump over. An abandoned wheelie chair which was sitting there provokingly, provided yet more entertainment The children seemed to be having a great time but mum seemed to be becoming increasingly frustrated with the constant distraction and distinct lack of pace or progress to the intended destination with those tell-tale looks other parents will be more than familiar with!

At this particular point however she took direct action. She put one child in the push chair and held the other child’s hand and walked the remaining 20metres to the Farm.  On arrival the mum visibly relaxed, most probably relieved that she had reached the destination and parked the pushchair. However as I walked past her with my daughter I overheard a conversation with her two children.

“Mum can we go home now… I want to go home”

She was clearly frustrated by the demand.  Why were her children responding like this? Were they being ungrateful, or just trying to wind her up? Were they giving it a fair go?

The farm offers a lot of great things for young children to do?

As a parent I had an instant affinity with the mum in that situation, knowing that feeling of infuriation and impatience… but this situation also reminded me of a phrase I happened upon one holiday in France when I borrowed my dad’s VW Camper Van where someone left a note on my windscreen saying:

“It’s all about the journey”

I felt this phrase related to this situation that had just unfolded to the way in which the children had been playing and were enjoying being absorbed in the moment.

The mum was keen to get the Farm to ‘play’ but in her determination had not noticed how much fun they had been having ‘playing’ all the way there…. on the low wall, the steep pathway, the tunnel, the upturned stones, the garage with the low chain and the chair. No one had told them to do this it had been an intrinsic act. They were choosing the shape, structure

and direction for their play and had so much fun doing it on the way it’s no wonder they didn’t want to stay at the farm…. They wanted to go home to see how exciting the journey would be in reverse.

“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” Fred Rogers

Children are experts in play, they live in the moment and can become fascinated or totally immersed by things that as adults we may not notice or feel are important enough to warrant investigation.

When children are engaged in play they are simultaneously learning a huge amount about the world around them. This article from the earlyarts describes this process succinctly:

“Young children learn holistically, which means they learn from everything all at the same time. Something they learn from one experience will connect with something else seemingly unrelated and form a connection which builds context and meaning which is why it’s so important not to separate teaching into subject areas too early on.

They also learn best through doing – active learning – and play is the best way of offering them these hands-on experiences.  Whether reconstructing real situations or building imaginary worlds,  children can develop their thinking, language, imagination, speaking and listening skills through creative play which prepares them for communicating and interacting effectively with others.Young children learn a huge amount through their senses which become finely tuned long before they may have mastered speaking or reasoning skills. They need lots of relevant opportunities to explore the objects and materials around them with all of their senses.  This helps them to construct and test theories, make decisions, overcome challenges, foster empathy, build resilience and solve problems for themselves so that they can become independent, confident and competent individuals.”

There is no right or wrong in this situation or indeed any moral high ground to be had either, it was simply an observation of the way in which children and adults were interacting with the environments around them. It did make me aware of the differences of how children view the world around them and the impact that we can have on this as adults.

There is poem that beautifully conveys the important roles imagination and discovery play has in early childhood learning and from Loris Malaguzzi Founder of the Reggio Emilia Approach.

The Hundred Languages of Children

The child is made of one hundred.

The child has

a hundred languages

a hundred hands

a hundred thoughts

a hundred ways of thinking

of playing, of speaking.

A hundred.

Always a hundred

ways of listening

of marveling, of loving

a hundred joys

for singing and understanding

a hundred worlds

to discover

a hundred worlds

to invent

a hundred worlds

to dream.

The child has

a hundred languages

(and a hundred hundred hundred more)

but they steal ninety-nine.

The school and the culture

separate the head from the body.

They tell the child:

to think without hands

to do without head

to listen and not to speak

to understand without joy

to love and to marvel

only at Easter and at Christmas.

They tell the child:

to discover the world already there

and of the hundred

they steal ninety-nine.

They tell the child:

that work and play

reality and fantasy

science and imagination

sky and earth

reason and dream

are things

that do not belong together.

And thus they tell the child

that the hundred is not there.

The child says:

No way. The hundred is there.

Loris Malaguzzi

Founder of the Reggio Emilia Approach