The Thinking 

Why Do Children Play?

October 13, 2010



PLAY is something a child does to fill up time. That’s the common view. A child is not yet an adult. He does not have the attention, dexterity, or focus to start and complete a task, and so he plays instead. It is not so important what he’s doing while he is playing, as long as he is safe, occupied and his time is filled.

Educational play teaches, but even with this kind of play, a child’s identity revolves more around what he is not (an adult) rather than what he is. Adults reorganize their lives to accomodate this incapacity of children. Both adults and children seem to co-exist in this state of waiting until childhood ends.

In truth, a child is more than an adult-in-waiting. Child’s play forms not just the developing person, but the world at large. The child plays because he is seeking to understand and to know. He wants to create something new. When a child plays, he is an actor in the drama of existence. He chooses. He decides. He loves. He thinks. He is free. Child’s play fertilizes all of society. It awakens adults from the slumber of rationality. For children, the spiritual dimension of existence, with both its good and its evil, is always close at hand. Imagination is the apprehension of the unseen. For a child, there is no gulf between the physical and the moral, the visible and the invisible. All reality is one. Things that are just things for us are filled with meaning.

That is why elaborate toys are a mistake for children. Elaborate toys, especially mechanical toys, deaden the imagination. The world as it is elicits a response from a child. He needs the time and freedom to act upon his inner life. Boredom is a natural and necessary part of play, a phase of exhaustion, rest and preparation. Contrived play suppresses a child’s awareness and stupefies him.

Play is not play when it is regimented, when it is enacted in large groups or impersonal settings. In an institutional setting, the playing child is like a seedling in a drumming downpour. His tender shoots are battered. He is over-stimulated, too busy and distracted to hear the barely audible voices of inspiration within. He may age, but he does not grow. He is prepared for lifelong stupefication.

For a child to play well, he must be loved. There is no play without love. To enable play is an exalted task, an awesome responsibility. The adult who supervises and nurtures the playing child, disciplining and loving him, is far more powerful than the world will ever admit. With balls and dolls, blocks and swords, civilization is forged.

John P. writes:

I agree with most of what you wrote but I would like to clarify your comment about “mechanical” toys. It depends on age and sex a bit but toys like Lego or Meccanno are good and certainly don’t stunt the imagination. But perhaps that’s not what you meant. Building things is excellent play and many an engineer started out that way.

Laura writes:

Building toys make excellent play and are among the best toys for children. By mechanical, I meant battery-operated and computerized toys. Even those would be fine if children built them themselves.

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