Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Meaning of Play

This post is part of the Attachment Parenting Month blog carnival, hosted by Attachment Parenting International.

For children, play comes naturally.  Children can find play hiding in boxes, under trees, in mud pies, between mom’s never-to-be-worn-again dresses in the closet, and on top of the neighborhood’s tallest hill.  Children need no reason or goal in their play.  They just play because they want to and they can.
For adults, play does not seem to come naturally.  We seem to have lost our innocent desire for play in boxes in the garage that need to be sorted, under the piles of mud-stained laundry, between the bills that need to be paid, and in the desire to ensure that we give our children the absolute best chance for success in life.  In fact, play comes so unnaturally for adults that a researcher (Catherine Garvey of the University of Maryland) has decided to define play.  Apparently, there are five elements to “play”.
1.    Play must be pleasurable and enjoyable.  Easy enough.
2.    Play must have no extrinsic goals.  So, if Junior is “playing” on the computer with the newest Math Busters game to improve his test scores or out hitting some balls to make the Varsity team, it doesn’t count.  Tougher.
3.    Play is spontaneous and voluntary.  Here, if you are making Junior hit balls because it’s your favorite pastime, it doesn’t count.  Also, could be tough.
4.    Play involves active engagement.  So, watching TV is not play.  Watching big brother use the Wii is not play.  Easy enough.
5.    Play involves make believe.  Doable.

What links these elements?  Play should be left to the kids.  On the way home from school, a group of otherwise bored children can come up with an innovative way to use their lunchboxes as radars to help them find their way to the lunar launch site.  (See, it includes all five elements! Unless a trip to the moon is considered an extrinsic goal…)  It seems that adults can inadvertently take all of the fun out of play by providing more structured activities and timing. 
Still, adults shouldn’t step out completely.  Another study has revealed that an infant’s sense of exploration increases directly with the level of responsiveness that a mother shows towards his play activities.  By watching their mothers’ actions during play, infants learn how to play and, ultimately, entertain themselves (infants as young as 2 days old have been observed imitating adults around them!) Children get the most benefit from play (the benefits of play for children are countless- improved abilities to handle emotional difficulties, improved social skills, increased understanding of mathematical concepts, etc.) when adults guide them and provide new challenges or ideas, only when it is obvious that the children are ready to handle these next steps.
So, how can you be a secure base within your child’s play?  Ensure that play activities are child-led.  Take your cues from your children.  And, relax in the knowledge that by guiding, instead of leading his exploration, you are giving your child the best chance at Harvard or the Major Leagues. 

Belsky, J., Goode, M.K., Most, R.K. (1980). Maternal stimulation and infant exploratory competence: Cross-sectional, correlational, and experimental analyses. Child Development, 51(4), 1168-1178
Hirsh-Pasek, K. & Golinkoff, R.R. (2004). Einstein never used flash cards. USA: Rodale.

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