The Importance of Play

Voices on the Green – The Importance of Play

by Sally Jenkinson

(Reprinted with kind permission from Steiner Education, Vol.32, No.1)

When the voices of children are heard on the green
And laughter is heard on the hill…

William Blake

We are increasingly conscious of the need to protect and respect the range and diversity of cultures which together form the complement of human society: and rightly so. Political and cultural hegemony is unacceptable and everyone’s voice must be heard. Yet how do you speak if you haven’t yet a voice, if you can’t yet articulate your thoughts, if you don’t yet know what threatens you? If you are a child? Who speaks for the culture of childhood?

The culture of childhood can be found in all languages and in all human communities. The child’s need to play remains the same 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. Art imitates life and life itself is the child’s own muse. 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 play of the children on the streets of Northern Ireland. 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: a different spirit moves us.

Henry Bett, author of The Games of Children, written in 1929 when there were still plenty of children’s games to see, was of the opinion that nothing is more characteristic of the child than the faculty of imitation. Interestingly, he noted in many instances that this imitation dated back to earlier epochs in human history. He wrote:

Among the [American] Indians to-day it is stated that the games of the adults generally are played ceremonially, as pleasing to the gods, and with the purpose of securing fertility, causing rain, expelling demons, and so on. It is likely that the children in prehistory times imitated all the other doings of their elders, so that it is possible that some children’s games are the ghosts of these ancient mysteries.
(Bett, p.8)

This indicates a cultural/spiritual heritage of deep significance and images of the silent but monumental ring game(s) being played out at Stonehenge and other ancient sites across the globe come to mind. The children’s game, Sally Go Round the Sun, seems to resonate with echoes of our distant past. It is both an intimation and 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 heaven rather than earth, and one can observe something of this heavenly 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. Inner realities reverberate with cosmic movements and together they find their natural expression, joyfully recreated in the wonderful movement games and songs which find their home in early childhood.

In the preface to her book, The Traditional Games of England, Scotland and Ireland, Alice Gomme also points out that, in a large proportion of their games, children are involved in the activity of imitating or mimicking the adults around them. She writes: “In many of these games we have, there is little doubt, unconscious folk dramas of events and customs which were at one time being enacted as part of the serious concerns of life before the eyes of children many generations ago.” (Gomme, 1984) In the traditional game Round and Round the Village, the children create a little village of houses by standing together and holding hands. Gomme describes this activity as forming ‘the rudiments of community’. (ibid p.133) The children then pass around the boundary of the village and wander in serpentine fashion in and out of the windows. The players act as ‘chorus’ by describing, in the words they sing, the actions of those performing their parts. The narrative in this game is one of marriage and, as Gomme indicates, the burden of the game rests with the line, ‘As we have done before’. Marriage is a recurring event, and this game, and many others like it, symbolize continuity. They belong to the body of games called ‘custom games’, where children “act in play what their elders do seriously”. (ibidp.142) Through the re-creation of these rites de passage children gradually come to understand the world and its ways. The literal meaning of the word ‘recreation’, now used to denote sporting or leisure activities, is to create anew.

If the adult world lacks dimension and depth, a paucity of rich experience for the child to imitate will result. Children need substance upon which to put their culture to work in order to transform and remake the world in their own way. In our media-drenched society – a world of simulacra and superficiality where the characters of Neighbours are as real, or in some cases more real, than the people who live next door – 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 of 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 more true than for the first stage of childhood, before the change of teeth. What goes on in his physical environment, this 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. (Steiner p.15)

It is with this knowledge that Kindergarten teachers strive to carry out their domestic activities, their sewing, baking, cleaning, gardening (all tasks required to support the healthy life of the Kindergarten community) with careful and loving attention in the presence of the ever watchful children. The teacher follows the seasons with songs and story and many activities 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. These encounters are grist to the mill for the child to work upon.

In his introduction to Gomme’s book of childhood games, D. Webb recounts his experience of visiting a village in Portugal. It is a personal account which nonetheless strikes an all too familiar note.

Twenty years ago I used to stay with a fisherman and his family in the Algarve of Southern Portugal. Every night from the neighbouring streets children came to the flat cobbled space in front of our cottage and sang and danced for an hour. I collected sufficient singing games to fill a book on its own. Today (April 1983) following the building of several luxury hotels and tourist explosion, the fleet of fishing boats has vanished and the vast majority of cottages have been bought for holiday apartments. The narrow streets are clogged with parked cars. I visited an old lady who lived next door to our cottage, and one evening she collected a dozen or more children to come and do their singing games in the street. They did not know a single one. I asked a girl what they liked playing best, to which she replied: Raiding the hotel for empty lipstick holders. In less than two decades an entire tradition had been wiped out. (p.15)

Webb wrote this in 1983, predicting a similar cultural shift in the UK, although not on such a catastrophic scale. He reckoned without the commercial exploitation of the children’s leisure industry and its subsequent hijack of children.

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 published in 1995, she writes:

Saturation entertainment has taken over the playtime and the homelife of children, so that, not only do they suffer the consequences of being overwhelmed and brutalized by their entertainment, but they are exposed to concepts totally unsuitable for and inimical 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, Hollywood and Silicon Valley, the toy and consumer goods and food empires — these have together in a loose 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. (Article: Play for Life 1995)

Where is the child’s voice in all of this? Is the loud-mouthed youth culture playing bully to the less powerful but far more creative childhood culture? 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.

Dr Peter Blachford, a researcher at the University of London’s Institute of Education, who is currently looking at the range and diversity of children’s games, was quoted in a recent copy of the Times Educational Supplement as saying: “If the vocabulary of play is impoverished, the implications are serious indeed… we mess with playtime at our peril.” (10 May 1996) Part of this vocabulary has been usurped, as outlined above, by the ever expanding toy industry. Nowadays ‘less’ is hardly ever experienced as ‘more’. It wasn’t always so. Writing in 1916, Norman Douglas, another collector of children’s games, observed: “It all comes to this: 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.” (A Century of Childhood, p.62) 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 on the market — Douglas does have a point. A mother once told me how her child had once played a game of Postman (not Postman Pat, just Postman child). The slatted back of a dining chair became his post box; he made his own letters and tiny stamps, complete with queen’s head (of sorts), he borrowed a hat and cloak, made himself a silver foil badge and played at delivering letters to various destinations around his house for hours. A kind aunt, having seen his obvious delight in the game while visiting, later bought him a manufactured toy Postman Set from the shops nearby: he never played with it. The charm of his own play lay in his creative participation and in his ability to transform; each little invention brought its own pleasure and allowed the child to add something of himself to the game.

In the past, toys were often made of found objects. Neither city children nor their country cousins had money to spend and the creative spirit of play simply made use of whatever was to hand, as the following examples illustrate. The first, from a book entitled A Century of Childhood, is from Mary Brown, the daughter of a textile worker in Halifax, born during the First World War.

The games we played needed no more money spent on them. For a skipping rope I used to get a rough straw rope from the boxes of oranges given away by greengrocers. The boxes had two compartments and we used them for bookcases or dolls houses. We made doll furniture from matchboxes and cotton reels. We lived near the roadside and I used to copy the boys and put pins on the tramlines. When they were flattened we pushed them through bits of match sticks and said they were swords. (p.67)

The second example is from Sylvia Land, born in war-ravaged Sheffield after the Second World War. “I vividly remember playing chip shop with broken slates for fish and rubble for chips. Play shops were made out of mountains of bricks and empty cans were threaded with precious string and formed into a loop to make mini-stilts.” It would be foolish to suggest that life was easy for many of these children — 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. As Mary Ann Sieghart writes in her article, Why can’t Boys and Girls go out to Play?, “Parks, streets and open fields have been replaced by computers, television and bedrooms. Adventures have to be experienced vicariously… Virtual freedom is the best that our children can hope for.” (Times, 5 August 1995)

In my case, I was lucky enough to enjoy a carefree childhood. I played without fear through woods, lanes and streets as I roamed around with my little tribe of friends from one location to the next. Much of our learning was self-taught and experiential. Whole days were spent with other children instead of adults – the choices and the rules of play were ours; they were self-imposed and carefully negotiated. Now, sadly, these important group experiences of childhood, with their own particular mores and codes of behavior, have become subject to adult authority (albeit unwillingly). 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. As Neil Postman shrewdly observed, watching television requires no skills, nor does it develop any.

The Russian psychologist Vygotsky recognized play as an essential agent in the maturation process of the child. In her book Early Childhood Education, Tina Bruce (1995) writes: “Vygotsky believes that when children are involved in imaginative play they will renounce what they want, and willingly subordinate themselves to rules, in order to gain the pleasure of the play. He argues that in play they exercise their greatest self-control.” (p.42) How different in character is this activity from the alienated world of the bedroom TV watcher, whose desires are instantly gratified as programs are turned off and on at will, and whose self-control is replaced by its bogus counterpart ‘remote control’. The ability to renounce our desires for others is the bedrock of truly social behavior. The development of relationships and emotional responses, the ability to share and to take on the perspective of the other, are all played out in germinal form in the multiplicity of games which children have always played in their early years. “Let’s pretend” — the two most commonly used passwords into the world of play – are good indicators of the two-fold nature of play and its pride of place in the culture of childhood. The ‘Let’s’ signified the social aspect of the let ‘us’ that makes the game a shared social activity and experience; and the ‘pretend’ signifies the imaginative realm in which the young child lives the realm of possibilities.

Each age of life has its own secrets to impart and at each stage of childhood a unique opportunity arises for particular faculties to unfold and develop. Recent decisions in National Curriculum circles promise even more ‘top down’ pressure on the young child. Five year-olds are soon to be tested. Tested for what? Who decides what exactly it is that you are supposed to know as a five year-old? Doesn’t it matter rather more who you are and whether or not you are a happy, enthusiastic and well-adjusted child? Aren’t these the qualities which form the real foundation stones upon which the building of all later learning must rest? 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.

Heidi Britz-Crecelius writes in her book on children’s play:

It is much less troublesome and exciting to teach the poor things to read already at Kindergarten age. One does not need to get out of the armchair. The experts who lead the battle to teach children to read as early as possible, emphasize again and again how much more quiet and well-poised early readers are than those who play – just as if quietness and poise were desirable in children! Well of course, the early readers can then read about all the things of which they have been deprived. But instead of assimilating experiences, they have information in their heads, and information is bound to be a quite inadequate substitute for experience. (p.69)

In our Steiner 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 recognize that children need time to play during their formative years. As Tina Bruce (1995) writes: “Adults reflect through discussion, through literature, through writing and meditation. Children reflect through concretely acting out past experiences, or concretely preparing for them.” (p.17)

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. There are 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.


Reference and Bibliography:
Bett, H. (1929), The Games of Children, Methuen.
Blake, W. (1967), Songs of Innocence and Experience, Rupert Hart-Davis Ltd, London in association with Trianon Press, Paris.
Blatchford, Dr. P.., The games that children need to play in Times Educational Supplement, 10 May 1996.
Britz-Crecelius, H. (1972), Children at Play – Preparation for Life, Floris Books.
Bruce, T. (1995), Early Childhood Education, Hodder and Stoughton.
Gomme, A. (1984), The Traditional Games of England, Scotland and Ireland, Thames and Hudson.
Humphries, S., Mack, J., & Perks, R. (1998), A Century of Childhood, Sidgwick & Jackson, London.
Postman, N. (1983), The Disappearance of Childhood, London: W.H. Allen.
Steiner, R. (1995), The Education of the Child in the Light of Anthroposophy, Rudolf Steiner Publishing Co., London.
Stutz, E. (1995), Article: Violent electronic entertainment; its effects on the development of children and the implications for world peace and some possible steps to reverse the trend, pub. by Play for Life.
Sieghart, M.A. (1995), The Times, entitled: Why can’t Boys and Girls go out to Play? in The Times, 5 August 1995.

© 2023 Donna Simmons

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