The Importance of Play

The culture of childhood can be found in all languages and in all human communities. The child’s
need to play remains the same in the world over. Common to all children, the universal character of this childhood culture has something to do with the imagination, resourcefulness, inventiveness and adaptability, which each child brings to bear upon the experiences he or she encounters.

The child at play is a miniature artist, supplied with a broad palette and an endless supply of subject material. Many of the magical games of childhood, have been played throughout the centuries as an ongoing homage to the adult world. These games are framed by the cultural and social milieu surrounding the child and woven by the creative spirit of childhood itself. Our words and deeds echo in the play of our children and their play reflects and bears witness to the health or otherwise, of our society.

There is a direct correlation between adult activities and children’s play — witness the soldier or police play of the children. The raw material of the observable world is taken in and after a period of incubation it re-appears, transformed and newly created, as the garment of the child’s play. Except in the formalized games which we call sport, we adults find it very difficult to play.

There is a cultural/spiritual heritage, of deep significance, of the monumental ring game(s) being played. The children’s game, “Here we Go Round the Sun,”(or Sally go round the sun) seems to resonate with echoes of distant past. It is an imitation of an older solar/lunar mystery which reminds us of our abiding relationship to the cosmos, the sun and the moon. Rudolf Steiner said that the young child is a picture of the universe and one can observe something of this supreme quality in the first drawings of the child, which sparkle and dance with whirling spirals and sun motifs like the planets and stars above. As above: so below.

In our media-drenched society – a world of superficiality – our offerings to the child are not always beautiful, good or true and often fall short of being worthy of imitation. Children aren’t conscious learners like adults; the faculty of discrimination develops later and signals the child’s ability to hold back, whereas imitation has its roots in trust and total openness to the world. Knowledge for the young child is caught rather than taught (the acquisition of our native language being the prime example): just what the ‘catch’ of those early years will be, depends on us.

In The Education of the Child, Rudolf Steiner writes:
“There are two magic words which indicate how the child enters into relation with his environment. They are Imitation and Example. The Greek philosopher Aristotle, called man, the most imitative of creatures. For no age in life, is this truer than for the first stage of childhood, before the change of milk teeth. What goes on in his physical environment, the child imitates, and in the process of imitation, his physical organs are cast into the forms, which then become permanent.

Physical environment must, however, be taken in the widest imaginable sense. It includes not only what goes on around the child in the material sense, but everything that takes place in the child’s environment – everything that can be perceived by the senses, that can work upon the inner powers of the child. This includes all the moral or immoral actions, all the wise or foolish actions, that the child sees. It is not moral talk or prudent admonitions that influence the child in this sense. Rather it is what the grown-up people do visibly before his eyes.

It is with this knowledge that Kindergarten teachers strive to carry out their class activities, their sewing, baking, cleaning, gardening, with careful and loving attention, in the presence of the ever-watchful children. The teacher follows the seasons with songs and stories and many activities which have a relationship to the agricultural and natural cycles of the year. The celebration of festivals, warms their heart, each festival providing a rich store of meanings and a deepened living experience for the child.

Elizabeth Stutz, founder of ‘Play for Life’, has campaigned tirelessly for the rights of children to be granted time and space to really play. In an article, she writes: “Saturation entertainment has taken over the playtime and the home-life of children, so that, not only do they suffer the consequences of being overwhelmed by their entertainment, but they are exposed to concepts totally unsuitable to their stage of development, and in addition they are robbed of the carefree hours in which they should be enjoying the nourishing and creative forces of play…”

Children’s leisure time has been made the subject of intense commercial competition. The richest and most powerful industries and interest groups — such as the ever expanding communications industry, the electronic entertainments and music industries, the toy and consumer goods and food empires — these have together in a fierce conglomerate taken over, as their domain, the market of childhood and youth; they decide what children will play, read, eat, wear, admire, hate, how they behave to each other, to their parents and authority and who their role models are to be; this contrivance is then sold as the youth culture.

Where is the child’s voice in all of this? The commercially produced youth culture breeds a herd mentality which commands everyone to eat the same grass, graze the same field. The childhood culture on the other hand gradually brings about the birth of the unique individual.

Research admonishes that, “If the vocabulary of play is impoverished, the implications are serious indeed… we mess with playtime at our peril.” Nowadays ‘less’ is hardly ever experienced as ‘more’. It wasn’t always so. It is rightly observed: “If you want to see what children can do, you must stop giving them things. Because of course they only invent games when they have nothing ready made for them.”

Although this is a somewhat extreme view — after all, we give toys and games to our children because we love them and there are many good games for children. In the past, toys were often made of found objects. Neither city children nor their country cousins spent money on flashy toys and the creative spirit of play simply made use of whatever was to hand. In the past, the games played needed no more money spent on them. For a skipping rope one could use a rough straw rope from the boxes of mangoes. One could make doll furniture from matchboxes and cotton reels and dolls from coconut leaves.

It would be foolish to suggest that life was easy for many of the children in the past, be it post war or freedom struggle— it wasn’t, but they had something which children of today lack: their games still formed part of a culture, independent of the adult world — the culture of childhood.

The loss of childhood, which is a consequence of the insidious penetration of the media and its attendant commercial market, is further compounded by the fact that the world today offers little opportunity for children to play without adult supervision. ‘Stranger danger’, ever increasing traffic and other potential threats, all conspire to keep children confined and restricted.

Parks, streets and open fields have been replaced by computers, television and bedrooms. Adventures have to be experienced virtually… Virtual freedom is the best that our children can hope for.

Children in the past were lucky enough to enjoy a carefree childhood who played without fear through, lanes and streets and roamed around with their little tribe of friends from one location to the next. Much of their learning was self-taught and experiential. Whole days were spent with other children instead of adults – the choices and the rules of play were theirs; they were self-imposed and carefully negotiated. Now, sadly, these important group experiences of childhood, with their own particular codes of behaviour, have become subject to adult authority. Sterile play areas, which offend, replace their more haphazard but infinitely more interesting predecessors — when was the last time you saw a genuine child-built adult-free den? — which offered a wealth of play experiences and encouraged the development of a wealth of differentiated faculties in the child. Nowadays real adventures are replaced by immobile couch odysseys of the mind. This has obvious implications for the physical well-being, social and imaginative development of the children in our care.

Children learn about life in the way most appropriate to their age; and joyful imitation and intrinsic motivation are the natural pedagogues of the young child.

In our Waldorf Kindergartens, we are conscious of the very real threat to the world of the child and our concern is always to do the right thing at the right time — we recognise that children need time to play during their formative years. Our adult world continues to make increasingly aggressive inroads into the playground of childhood as we flex our muscles and assert our cultural dominance in a devastating variety of ways. As adults we are to create those precious few places where children can freely develop their own culture, and where the creative spirit of childhood can perform its magical transformations.

A Waldorf Kindergarten tries to be such a place: a place where the echoing voices of children at play can still be heard.