Heffner column: Play is children’s work
Columns share an author’s personal perspective.
Looking out the window the day of the big snowstorm, an eruption of children seemed to be taking place on a hill in the park. A big rock formation formerly used for climbing by those more daring, had been transformed by the snowfall into a perfect slope for sledding.
Multi-colored saucers, sleds, and snowsuits, created a jumble of movement and excitement from 7:30 in the morning until almost dark, as the whooshing down the hill continued mixed with the climb back up, without a mishap or a crash of one into another. Watching, one could actually feel the pent-up energy of almost a year of restrictions being released in a joyous burst of movement.
This long period of restrictions in school attendance and usual social activities, has only served to exacerbate a focus on narrow academic skills that had trickled down even to the early school years. Even in the preschool years an idea took hold that only the acquisition of academic skills constitutes real learning. Descriptions of those years reflect a feeling that children are just playing - implying that nothing important is happening.
In fact, play is children’s work. It is through play, pretending and the use of their imagination that children begin to enter the adult world. They develop cognitive and language skills and as important, social and emotional skills. Learning to function successfully in a group means learning how to interact with others in socially acceptable ways. That means expressing feelings appropriately and resolving conflict situations. It means learning to share and to take turns.
Children learn about the world through the use of their senses. The early school years should afford them the opportunity and the materials to make that possible.
They solve engineering and architectural problems using building blocks. They find solutions to complex balancing problems. In a housekeeping corner, children try out different roles and costumes - including what it feels like to walk in mom or dad’s shoes.
Young children also need to move - to run, jump and use their bodies. Both large and small muscles need exercise so that play in the physical sense is an important part of children’s development. Using their bodies also involves learning how to control their bodies when necessary and that becomes increasingly important as children later are expected to sit at desks, to focus and attend to teacher directions.
“Play” is the true beginning of education, as well as playing a role in the development of resilience. A criticism made of children - in the pre-pandemic days - was that they are unable to tolerate discomfort or having to struggle. They may give up too readily on things that are hard and are unable to bounce back when things don’t go well for them.
Perhaps this was a result of ideas about child-rearing fostered by a misunderstanding of child development research and theories about mental health. The thought that frustration and negative feelings are damaging to children took hold in various ways. Parents are invested in children feeling happy - the focus on happiness is also a product of our culture.
We don’t want our children to feel “bad,” or to struggle. But overcoming obstacles and achieving goals often involves struggle. Just living in the world with other people requires compromise and giving up things you may want.
Resilience is the ability to deal with such realities and move forward despite disappointments and frustration. Living through things that are hard early on develops the necessary muscles for the future.
Our children have lived through much that is hard over this past year. Their resilience muscles burst forth in the snow.
Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.