If you were to imagine an idyllic scene of childhood bliss, I have very little doubt that your vision would include some version of play. Whether you fancy running, climbing, dressing up, acting out a scene, playing on teams or building things just to knock them down, you too probably loved to play as a kid. Across all cultures, babies and children spend as much time as possible playing. Both solo and in groups, if children are left to their own devices, they create songs, stories, sports or adventures. So what is it about play that’s so compelling?
I’ve been the director of preschools for 12 years, and through my daily experience I know that play is the way that children connect to the world.
Far from arbitrary or a waste of time, play is the very essence of how children develop and grow into capable, critical thinkers. It’s their currency, their access to the expectations and social norms of society, and a critical way to process life’s experiences.
Play is how children learn the way the world works, and how they fit into that dynamic. Essentially, people are designed in a way that enables them to gain fundamental life knowledge, and also achieve happiness, by playing.
As these truths have become more obvious to me, I couldn’t help but notice how little play is left in most modern children’s lives. Our mainstream approach to education doesn’t leave much room for it - kids spend their days in classrooms designed to support achievement and skills that can be measured through testing. Recess is sacrificed to another hour of worksheets, and lunch period is 20 minutes long. After school hours are spent in ballet class, at soccer practice, or learning another language.