Throughout my twenty years in ECD, in the classroom and as a children’s show host, I have observed that the young child in focused, self-directed, open-ended play is like a lucid dreamer. Think about how our subconscious processes our daily life experiences during our dream cycles. When adults are interested in children’s verbal and nonverbal play, we are, in a way, able to look into their subconscious and, with some careful observation and analysis, gain a good idea of what they are going through in their daily lives. From there we can begin to discover how best we can meet their specific needs.
I clearly remember the first time I saw this in action. I was a junior preschool teacher working in Chicago. It was the morning of September 12, 2001, the day after the attacks on the United States known as 9/11. We combined classes because our attendance was very low and the principal said it would be better for the kids if we allowed as much free play as possible that day. In addition to being the children’s favorite activity, I didn’t quite understand why play was so important on that particular day.
As my colleagues calmly compare updates about the chain of events that take place in the adult world, the most experienced teacher in the room, whom the children nicknamed “Miss.” Cathy, “She was keeping a close eye on the children playing in the corner of the building. I took her cue and started to look too, but I didn’t see anything unusual in that area. They were building and demolishing structures like any other day. I asked Mrs. Cathy what we were looking at. She said, “Just watch and listen,” and I did. It was quieter than usual. In fact, there was no talking at all. No tracks were made for cars to race on. No small ramps to jump on. Just repetition of building and demolishing structures. No laughter. No fighting. Just serious little faces building structures and destroying them over and over again.
After a while, Mrs. Cathy watched as she cautiously walked into the group as she played. I sat next to a small child, with criss-cross applesauce, as he began to build blocks again. She didn’t say a word. She was only with him. After he smashed his chassis again with his car, she gently placed her hand on his back. The boy stopped and rested his head on her lap. I caressed his back, and from there, with some gentle guidance, I was able to talk to him about what he had seen the night before on TV.
I recently shared this story with Dr. Chip Donohue, founding director of the Center for Early Childhood Technology at the Ericsson Institute. He explained that 9/11 somehow happened to young children in that period due to round-the-clock television news coverage and constant replays of the tragedy, including planes hitting towers.
The language of play is not only for children. It can also be a tool for adults to tackle complex, and it has served me over the years in my work with young children and as a parent.
At the height of the quarantine, I found myself returning to Mrs. Cathy and to all the moments since that day when I used play as a tool for understanding a child’s inner workings. The pandemic has created heightened emotion for people of all ages, and it is a critical time to listen to our children and observe their play to learn more about their feelings.
I called my friend and colleague, Rachel Giannini, a thoughtful early childhood specialist who appears in the documentary It Doesn’t Matter to talk about the intersection of play and mental health. I’ve shared that, in a way, COVID-19 and the resulting lockdown have given adults a reminder of what it can be like to be a kid. Constant waiting for adults to share what happens next, being forced to adapt to changing routines that affect our emotional and physical well-being, dealing with ever-changing rules and a desperate quest for independence and freedom, and at the same time wanting to rely on trusted interlocutors in times of uncertainty.
It can be difficult for parents, teachers and caregivers to embrace unstructured play for a number of reasons, particularly during a period of time when social distancing and mask-wearing has become the norm.
On the surface, it can be much easier to plan activities with specific goals and parameters, and of course this type of structure is valuable. But children also need and deserve a space to tackle the complexities of power on their own. Not the superficial kind of strength that comes from being big, powerful and loud, but a deeper kind of strength that comes from the ability to solve problems, self-regulate, empathize and negotiate with peers, learn from failure, and ultimately become active members of a shared community.
Imagine a child running with a cane. What is your first reaction? I’ve known many adults in this situation who have justifiably reacted at this moment by saying, “Hey, kid! Put this thing aside before you get hurt!” or, “We’re not playing like that here.” Many adults can only see one possible outcome, which is not a good outcome. But I’ve also known others in the same scenario who said, “Hey! I see you found a wand. You can do many different things with a wand. You can build with it, draw clay, or pretend it’s a magic wand. A wand can be anything you can imagine. And if If you are not careful, you may hurt yourself or someone else.” The same adult may offer some safety standards and a message that they are there to provide support as needed. Then, you may allow the child to exercise responsibility, make mistakes and learn from those mistakes along the way.
I’m talking about a big match, but it took me a long time to adopt the second method. It’s hard to let go. Often I just want to protect my children, my students, and my viewers. I want to protect their innocence, but all too often the harsh realities of life erupt.
For example, many of the kids I’ve worked with over the years in Chicago and Baltimore had primary and secondary experiences with gun violence. In their violent, dramatic play, sticks often become guns. Dramatic violent play usually does not mean that children are playing with the intent to harm in real life. In my experience, violent dramatic play can be a way for children to express their fear, anger, anxiety, and general curiosity about the violent events they have witnessed in their lives. They can represent different players, beyond just ‘good’ or ‘bad’, and try to take on different roles to gain a deeper understanding of perspective, motivation and reaction.
Empathy grows from the seeds of play. Fortunately, playing is a normal human behaviour. It is not necessary to teach it, we just need to reinforce it.
Today, when I return to visit classrooms in person to direct play-based social and emotional investigations as a specialist, I still see children playing with blocks. They still build and demolish structures, but they also use the blocks as medicine to take care of their friends; as weapons to explore the intricacies of force; And as smart phones to share their thoughts, thoughts and feelings. A family friend and teacher, David Newell, who played Mr. McFeely in “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” once explained to me as follows: “It’s not that children today have changed. It’s the world around them.”
I don’t know what’s coming up as we all approach 2022, but as a parent, early educator, and media maker for children, I know I will focus on seeking to speak the language of play as a way to address complex issues.
Whether it’s exploring anxiety about COVID through group play, navigating the intricacies of violence through role-playing with sticks, or reflecting caregivers’ behaviors on social media through their dramatic play, I will try to remember that our children are often in an effort to tell us something Not only about themselves, but about us as well. We just need to listen and get ready to play.