The discourse of child care cannot and must not be removed from the discourse of economic practice, and those who wish to promote competent and compassionate childcare must advocate structural nonviolence within the community, via open access and open source resource economics as facilitated by direct cybernetic democracy.
I once overheard my friend tell their daughter, “It’s time to learn, not play!”
Odd how this sentiment commonly takes hold of would-be rational minds. Of course, play and playful forms of creative participation are cornerstones in a child’s assimilation and retention of new information – renowned psychologist Lev Vygotsky even went so far as to say that in children of preschool age, play is a leading source of development.(1)
Free-play typically refers to a wide variety of self-chosen activities which children carry out according to their own interest, to their enjoyment or satisfaction. While circumstances inform the degree to which they do so, all children engage in play to varying degrees. Children from areas of high income inequality are less likely to engage in creative activities due to the stress living in communities with a high level of income inequality typically entails.(2) As play assists and support the psychological, emotional and social aspects of a child’s development, it follows logically that income inequality is severely counter the optimal development of a child, setting the stage instead for a staggered and impaired development at best, in which the individual in question is anxious and uninspired enough to suit the life of a 9-5 consumer/worker. This is a far cry from our potential to thrive in creative harmony with our environment and community.
Play invites children to explore the universe of their imaginations without restriction, as well as to expand them through the delight of playful experimentation, with ‘what if…’ scenarios and the like.
There is a liberty in play, not only from the routine of a child’s daily life but from their ever solidifying notion of their own identity. When playing group activities with the local children from my neighbourhood, it was lovely to see a twelve year old girl from a traumatised background, who often acts as though she is in her early twenties, shed her inhibitions and run around with the other children of mixed ages on a field, laughing and carefree.
Notions of identity can be a restrictive burden on anyone, and are so especially for those of us whose identity has been sculpted by trauma, which settles so especially heavily. Such a weight is manageable as adults, and is not meant for the young shoulders of children.
Play affords children the opportunity to explore both intellectually and physically and to think about cause and effect scenarios. Children often extend their communication skills through the medium of play by talking and listening with and to their playmates, as well as with any adults who are involved in supporting their play experiences. Bruce & Meggitt acknowledge that play, “helps children to use what they know and to understand things about the world and people they meet” (3)
In my own experience of teaching my daughter, I have found that she receives and retains information better when she has playfully participated in the process of learning. This is because the emotional experience and memory of the fun we had while playing the educational game acts as a sort of lubricant and sticking agent for the information. She is more open and receptive to learning when it is fun and the happy memories of that time are attractive to revisit.
This recalls Piaget’s theory of development, in which a key component of the acquisition of new skills is the assimilation stage, in which children adopt new information into their schema of reality.(4)
Through allowing them to explore and discover themselves, play recognises children as individuals. A child may explore their own feelings and discover skills which may be developed through play – in this sense, play allows a child to develop at their own pace. Play can also be extremely cathartic for a child, as they often use it to act out real life situations and so doing relieve tension, emotions and fears. As children rarely learn facts, walk, talk or even think the same way at the same age, play allows children at different stages of development to play together, which can be enormously beneficial for the individuals involved.
As a child’s day to day activities are, to a large extent, beyond their control, it is very important that they have some time in which to experiment with scenarios in which they have power. This enables children to more freely explore the world which has been experienced by them – tension felt regarding situations in which they experienced anxiety or stress can be diffused through play.
Many modern children in childcare facilities are peer oriented – a term coined by child psychologist Gordon Neufeld to refer to a child or person who orients their behaviour towards the behaviour of their peer group instead of that of an adult caregiver. Children naturally imitate the behaviour of those to whom their bond of attachment is strongest. For a child in the educational or childcare system from seven in the morning to six in the evening every day since infancy, with only a small number of adult caregivers sharing their attention between large groups of children, the strongest bond often becomes those formed with their peers.
The fact of the matter is, without a strong enough bond to an adult caregiver, and certainly without insightful, attentive adult intervention, young people will become locked into a feedback loop of immature behaviour – in which conflict is resolved through tantrums and vulnerability is exploited – which they will carry with them well into adulthood. Small wonder, then, that we observe a human global culture which is increasingly oppositional, uncooperative and divided!
A peer attached child’s bond to their peers naturally strengthens over their development, and because so many children’s social lives are kept separate from their family life (mostly due to parents’ increasingly long work schedules), and because the values of a peer oriented group will inevitably clash with the values of mature adults, we witness a state of competitive bonds, as the child’s attachment to their peer group ultimately wrenches them away from their increasingly anaemic bond with their primary caregivers. The result is “youth culture” – something which was much less of an issue several decades ago when working days were shorter and families were more involved in each others lives. Something which, in the pre-Neolithic Revolution time of our hunter gatherer ancestors, in which a community founded in connected, cooperative attachment was the norm, was virtually nonexistent.
Nourished by a strong and healthy bond of attachment to their adult caregivers, children may build cooperative bonds of attachment with their peers – cooperative in the sense of active cooperation between children, but also in the sense of forming a network of bonded attachments within their community which support their own personal development.
Maria Montessori, born in Italy in 1869, soon realised the vital importance of measured and timely mental stimulation during what Itard referred to as “critical periods”, during her tenure at Rome’s Orthophrenic School for neurodiverse children. These periods in which children are more sensitive to stimulus and learning are periods in which they must be stimulated to develop normally, or risk growing up, “forever lacking the skills and intellectual concepts not developed at the stage when nature expects them to be readily absorbed.” (6)
The fact that our false, inequality-perpetuating market economy is actively degrading and undermining the development of the continuation of humanity is inescapable. Through privatisation, war-mongering and debt, state and business-governed economic practice is shredding the community. If we, as a neighbourhood, are incapable of providing our youth with the necessary opportunities for development, then we are failing in one of the most basic ways it is possible to fail as a species. The discourse of child care cannot and must not be removed from the discourse of economic practice, and those who wish to promote competent and compassionate childcare must advocate structural nonviolence within the community, via open access and open source resource economics as facilitated by direct cybernetic democracy.
Perhaps in recognition of this, Montessori set up her classroom to be equipped with varying materials to support young children along they journey across different stages of development, and pioneered child-centred environments, designed to facilitate a greater degree of freedom while minimising risk. Her developed structured program is used to this day in many educational centres, especially in Ireland, and her emphasis on the importance of observation as well as the idea that children have a natural will to learn are recognised across many early year settings.
Varying types of play often overlap across a child’s experience interacting with their surroundings across their life, and so it is of utmost necessity that they have continuous access to a wide array of options with which to experiment with for the sake of their optimum development. For example, a baby engages in exploratory play when they put a rattle in their mouth – they engage in exploratory play again as a toddler when they experiment with finger paints, and the same type of play will be used again when the same child makes ‘perfume’ with rose petals, water and mud at the age of five.
Active Play is play of a physical nature – skipping, jumping, running, dancing and rough and trouble. Climbing and sliding, swinging and cycling may also fit in this category. In babies, we observe activ play as they crawl, slide on their butts, roll and throw – pushing, pulling and chasing may all be considered as activities which are examples of active play. The equipment needed to facilitate active play includes climbing frames, bicycles, slides, balls, hula hoops, bats, gym mats, push along toys, skipping ropes and most essentially, plenty of space. Typical Irish home environments are often not large enough to accommodate many kinds of physical play and there is often insufficient space in the garden. Migrant families detained for as many as ten years in privatised temporary housing initiatives like Direct Provision often have to share one room between four or five – the stifling impact on the developing mental skies of children as directly witnessed through their being deprived of the resources they need in order to develop must not be accepted, for the sake of the individual, and for the sake of the continuing community.
Different overlapping areas of play are each equally vital to propel the child across their varying stages of development, and a childcare practitioner is tasked with recognising and implementing which playful outlet is most suited to the needs of the child at the time. Knowing which type of play promotes which area of development is an essential part of providing an experience of play which is valuable to the children. While the link between certain types of play and certain areas of development (for example, outdoor play and physical development) is more obvious, other links may be less so (for example, outdoor play can promote social development), and development in one area may promote development in another (for example, physical development promotes emotional development).
Finally, I would conclude by drawing attention to the fact that it is the spirit of play or a playful attitude which so frequently helps us connect to the children in our care, and this can be perennially present across all areas of our interaction with them. Bonobos have been observed to use play to mitigate conflict, alleviate feelings of stress and to strengthen bonds between adults as well as between children and between children and adults (8). Wearing the mantle of nonviolence can weigh down a heavy heart, and the process of growing can be complex and challenging – a playful attitude helps alleviate the weight of existence and interaction, as well as being a strong avenue for optimal development.
- Vygotsky notes
- Pickett, K. Wilkenson, R.G. The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone. March 05, 2009.
- (Bruce, T. and Meggitt, C.,1996).
- Piaget notes
- Official website for child psychologist Gordon Neufeld. The Matrix of Attachment. https://neufeldinstitute.org/#
- Official website for NCBI. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6345176/
Official website for TED. Evolution’s Gift of Play, from Bonobo Apes to Humans. https://www.ted.com/talks/isabel_behncke_evolution_s_gift_of_play_from_bonobo_apes_to_humans?language=en