Play - The Work of Childhood

There are plenty of classes on offer these days with lots of stimulating approaches to engage you and your infant or toddler. You can make art together, sing, play instruments and listen to stories. Some classes, such as Tiny Talk, help you communicate with your child to ease the frustration of misunderstanding. Others teach you gentle touch through massage techniques. All these may have their place, but how much time does your child spend choosing their own activity? Do they really need to be taught so much, so soon? How do you choose which classes are right for you and your little one?

Does your child get enough unstructured playtime?

Play has been said to be the ‘work’ of childhood by such luminaries as Maria Montessori and Jean Piaget. For some of us that may have negative connotations – work can be a dirty word if you don’t enjoy what you do – but let’s think about it for a moment. Children, like any young living creature, need to learn how to thrive in their world. Everything from basic survival techniques – falling well; climbing down as well as up; spitting out something that doesn’t taste good – to experimentation, the manipulation of materials, and the nuances of social interaction. The development of these and other essential life skills are all available through play. What’s more, if that play is self-led and therefore paced according to current levels of ability, I, and many others, would argue that it is way more effective as a learning experience.

Kolb published his theory on learning styles in 1984. (There are lots of references online – here is just one.) He showed there are four basic stages to learning – experience, reflection, conceptualising and testing. From my Pikler training and experience, I can tell you that even the youngest infant goes through these stages if given the opportunity. But to learn effectively, Kolb says the process must be complete.

“Learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience”

 (Kolb, 1984, p. 38).

For some parents, the hands-on, interventionist approach appears to work well. Teaching, guiding and correcting little ones can create obedient, well-behaved children. But will these children now need to rely on you for their every need? Are they able to think for themselves, solve their own problems, stand up for themselves? Isn’t that what we want for them? For other families, resistance and upset experienced by both adult and child during classes or other teaching moments can cause high stress levels for both. There is plenty of evidence that prolonged periods of high stress or stimulation can be harmful to developing brains, but that is well documented elsewhere, including here.

What Can We Do Differently?

If we create a healthy environment for children to experiment safely, following their own interests, meeting other children, all under careful supervision, it’s amazing to observe how quickly they learn to adapt to new situations, work out how things work and find the security they need to explore their world. Through their own enthusiasm and experimentation with the playthings they encounter, an infant or toddler learns so much. Doesn’t our modern way of leading or interrupting the play of even the youngest child take away that opportunity for self-discovery and the sense of achievement that comes with it?

One Solution…

First Playtime aims to offer just that environment. (And, by the way, I LOVE my work.) I don’t ask much of the children. I observe them at play and try to facilitate their exploration and experimentation by supporting their needs. If James is playing with all three buckets, sorting objects into each one, I will help him when Olivia wants to take one away. It might be difficult for Olivia to wait, but when James has finished, she can take a turn, if she still wants to. When Megan has reached the top of the triangle climbing frame and is feeling stuck, I’ll help her to find her way down, giving her the confidence to try again, when she’s ready. In these ways, I help parents to see their children’s play develop, highlighting the skills they already have and noticing the ways in which they are progressing from one week to the next, however subtle.

And what of the child who just wants to stay close to Mum or Dad? Has it been a busy week? Does it take your little one a while to get used to new surroundings? That’s fine, and understandable. With a brief conversation, I’ll find out what your child might like to play with and bring them something to look at. It doesn’t matter if they don’t want to play – they’ll explore when they’re ready. Each child is accepted as the unique individual they are, allowing them, and you, to relax and enjoy just being.

And What About Me (that’s You – the Parent…)?

Is there anything in it for the parents? Absolutely, there is. My approach is calm and peaceful, allowing you to sit quietly and comfortably whilst I oversee the children. Your child may ask things of you and will welcome your loving response, as always, but there is no need to encourage or lead your child’s activity, only watch and accept the individuality your child expresses in this free, safe environment. In this way, and away from the busyness that can crowd in on life at other times, you may see your child with new eyes.