The Power of Play
"Children don't say 'I had a hard day, can we talk?' they say 'will you play with me?'" - Lewis Cohen
You may have heard the phrase ‘play is the work of the child’. It is credited to Maria Montessori and is often quoted in circles of early childhood development and play. My early career was spent in a highly sought-after Montessori preschool as a teacher’s assistant. I paced around, making sure that children kept on task with one of the pre-determined activities from the beautifully laid out shelves. Eager touring parents were assured that their child would learn to read, spell, count, write, and speak Mandarin AND French - all before they started school! It was very impressive, but it was not play.
Play has been identified by many writers as ‘children’s work’, often in an effort to legitimise play and make it more acceptable by adult standards. We often assume that play can only be important if it is equated to something that adults deem valuable by their standards; that children must be working towards a goal or accomplishment when playing, otherwise they are wasting time. Just as childhood is not a dress rehearsal for adulthood, play is not a dress rehearsal for work. Work is focussed on goals and accomplishments, whereas play is intrinsically motivated and doesn’t require rewards. Afterall, how many adults do you know that work for free just because they want to?
Play is essential to the development of cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being and development. It activates and strengthens the neural pathways in the areas of the brain responsible for executive functioning, such as emotional regulation, planning, problem solving, memory and self-control. The importance of play to child development is so universally accepted that it is internationally recognised and protected as a human right under the United Nations Conventions on the Rights of the Child. Play occurs in all cultures, in all corners of the globe. Children don’t need to be shown how to play or made to play; they just play!
Not only is play jam-packed with developmental benefits, is also the natural method of communication for children. As Lewis Cohen put it; ‘Children don’t say ‘I had a hard day, can we talk?’ they say ‘will you play with me?’
Think about the last time you had a terrible day. Did you speak to someone about it? Maybe you went home and talked it out over dinner with your partner? Maybe you aired it over a wine with your friends or posted about it on Facebook? Whatever you did, talking about our difficulties can make us feel better. Children do the same thing, not through talking, but through play. Children often don’t yet have the verbal and cognitive capacity to express their feelings through conversation, and sometimes words just can’t express the enormity of their feelings. Some feelings are SO big that they can only be communicated through play.
Children express themselves more fully through spontaneous, self-initiated play than they do in conversation, as this is what they are most comfortable with. ‘Playing out’ their feelings, anxieties and experiences can be incredibly healing for children. For example, children who have experienced car accidents have often been observed to crash cars together in their play and bring the ambulance speeding in to help; children with medical trauma have been observed to repetitively play out operations and procedures to ease their own anxiety. Just like we talk about our experiences and feelings to ease our worries, children ‘play out’ theirs. By playing out abstract scenarios in a step-by-step process, children bring these experiences into the here and now, allowing them to make sense of these events and feelings on their terms.
Play may not be the work of the child, but it’s so much more.
Words: Renee Stewart
Renne is a Therapeutic Play Practitioner, Early Childhood and Specialist Education Teacher, Developmental Educator and the Director of Grow Therapeutic Play. She is passionate about play, inclusion and neurodiversity affirming practices.
Originally published in Connected Caregiving Winter 2022