Play and a Happy Holiday to You!
In play, a child is always above his average age, above his daily behavior; in play, it is as though he were a head taller than himself.
– Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934)
Since Christmas is the holiday I celebrate in the coming week and toys are filling my head and attic, I thought it appropriate to focus this article on the importance of play in a child’s life. In our household, we’ve decorated the Christmas tree with ornaments that remind us of vacations, happy times, Christmases and relatives. My husband and I, in addition to wrapping up work, are busy getting gifts, baking cookies, writing cards and hosting gatherings for all of those friends, teachers and colleagues who have played a meaningful role in our lives this year. We are also busy thinking about, planning for and buying gifts for our son that will give him joy and engage his imagination. We – like many – hope for a magical Christmas in which our family feels a sense of joy in giving, in our connectedness as a family and in an appreciation of the good life that we have.
A good part of my child’s happiness is centered around play. Play is the vehicle through which some of the most fundamental developmental leaps of learning take place. It is the central vocation of childhood. And toys are the tools of the trade. In some developing countries where toys are not readily available, children play with the tools of the household imitating the adults around them to learn how things work. While I cook on the real stove, Ethan bakes a batch of cookies in his play kitchen set. Development, moving from one level of thinking and ability to the next, takes place when a child is in a window of time in which he/she is ready (developmentalist Lev Vygotsky called it the zone of proximal development). Play moves a child toward those next steps when they are ready. And interaction between a child playing with a more competent adult or older child can help facilitate those developmental jumps.
When does a child stop playing? When does play stop enhancing a person’s development? It doesn’t ever have to stop. Teenagers engage in play with video games, puzzles, board games, novels and social fantasies. As adults, though we have less opportunity for play, we do engage in creative endeavors that often times are the most fulfilling because they come from our intrinsic desires to express ourselves.
So my holiday wish for you is that you take time to play. Get down on the floor or if you have back troubles like my husband, sit in your comfy chair. Play can take place anywhere with many toys or none at all. You could be on a bus, a train or an airplane and if you’ve brought your imagination along, the sky is the limit. Here are some easy ways to engage in play this season.
Just do it. Get down on the floor and play. Engage in the interests of your child and see where it takes you. Build a new track system for a train. Rearrange a dollhouse. Build a fort of pillows.
Take a mental trip. Read a book together or if you feel particularly creative, close your eyes with your child, decide on a destination (the beach, Grandma’s House or Outer Space?) and describe your incredible journey to get there and what and who you encounter when you get there. Include details of the experience from your five senses and you will help transport you and your child.
Build a story. Look back at photo albums from former trips and vacations. Make up a story together set in your favorite location.
Buy toys that engage the imagination. Costumes are a terrific way for a child to engage in pretend play. You can likely find some dress-up clothes in your closet. But toy stores also sell a variety of occupational dress-up clothes (chef, police officer, fire person, postal worker, train conductor, princess). Any play sets that involve characters (people, animals, trains, cars, fairies) engage the imagination. Toys that are household tools like blenders, screwdrivers and vacuums are ways that children can play grown-up. For young adults, games, chemistry sets and art supplies can be both fun and engaging.
Reap the benefits of one of the greatest gifts your children can give – attention and presence in the moment. Children naturally have the gift of mindfulness, being aware of what’s going on at the moment it is happening. They learn in time from the adult world to multi-task and become distracted and scattered. But inherent in children is the ability to focus on something they are truly interested in through their creativity and imagination. Take advantage of that gift and experience a sense of timelessness, of “flow.” Turn over rocks in the garden and see what’s there.
I try to “walk the talk” so after I wrote the draft of this article, I played with my son for an hour before it was time to make dinner. I let him lead and cars zoomed off cliffs. The big yoga ball came out for some crazy rolling. Tickling ensued and Daddy joined in. I laughed until my belly ached. So that is my wish for you this holiday. Play! May your belly ache with laughter!