Can we talk about play?

    Young boy exploring nature photo via ShutterStock

    Young boy exploring nature photo via ShutterStock

    After long days at work and school, our six year old, Teo, will often ask if we can play.

    My inner monologue says, “You want to play…nah, man I’m gonna hang back right here.” I usually end up agreeing though.

    It’s tiring, but playing with my son, and the idea of play for everyone, matters to me.

    Before going any further, I think it’s important to recognize that opportunities to play — and what play actually looks like — varies across work lives, economic situations and cultural backgrounds.

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    What do I mean by play?

    Generally, when people are talking about play, there are two categories: structured (directed) play, or unstructured (free) play. I also think about “guided play” as somewhere between structured play and unstructured play. I like this list of the six kinds of play that stem from the work of Mildren Parten in the 1920s.

    The loss of play

    What most concerns me as a parent and as former public school teacher is the loss of play and playtime and the increase in structured activity for children. In the Philadelphia region alone, many school districts are mired in economic crisis. As a result of these pressures, play often seems to be missing from the curriculum.

    There are some instances where play can be too structured. Some children are in a number of organized programs or academic-centered child care centers that may not give young people enough down time.

    The benefits of play

    There are many benefits to play. To me the most important aspects of play are the cognitive, social-emotional and linguistic benefits.

    Teo has lots of interests and I’ve learned about them through his play. When he started kindergarten, he was into playing school with his stuffed animals, and now is wild about baseball. Watching him and playing with him has really given me a chance to get to know who my son is and who he is becoming.

    What I also find fascinating to watch and take part in is how he finds ways to play with different materials likes his stuffed animals, various kinds of building blocks and recycled materials. Check out the Block Lab at the Brooklyn Children’s museum and the imagination playground at the Please Touch Museum for examples.

    What I see in all of those moments is that he is sticking with an idea for long (or at least longer) periods of time, and he is communicating about them with adults and other children. His vocabulary has expanded, and he is getting better at expressing frustration and listening to the perspectives of others.

    It’s a work in progress, but my hope is that by helping him to deal with these moments now through play, we can continue to help him center himself and take these emerging ideas into other parts of his life, as questions of fairness and equity rise up in his life.

    Centering play

    The big point I want to make is that whether we’re battling a lack of opportunity, time and resources or too much structure and an overabundance of resources, play (structured and unstructured) needs to be at the center of children’s lives.

    I suggest we start by asking ourselves some questions:

    How do we think about play in our family and in our community?
    What opportunities, time and materials are available for play at home?
    What opportunities there are for structured and unstructured play at the school?

    The answers to these questions will be different, but I think the important first step is to ask the question.

    Opportunities for play

    Be on the look out for opportunities for play that are made available in your community. In South Philly, check out Casa Monarca for events. Check out Philadelphia Parks & Recreation for ideas, too.

    There are many more opportunities, like our list of 58 free thing to do with kids in Philly this summer.

    Play on!

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