When N was much younger, a friend asked how was getting on. This happens to be one of my favorite topics, and I quickly started describing how he was hitting different toys with a mallet – obviously figuring out the different noises they make through a rigorous set of baby experiments. My friend commented, ‘Oh, he’s learning through play’. Something about that phrase, though, made me pause. Not in a ‘that is clearly wrong and upsetting’ sort of way, but more in a ‘I’m about to go completely meta with this’ type of thing.
Play is a bit of a hot topic right now – it doesn’t take much time on Facebook these days for me to see articles popping up about the importance of play, child-directed play, how play is being sucked out of schools, how children don’t play enough, how adults need play too, and the list goes on. I think the research has been fairly clear as well – children need to play. It’s how they learn to make sense of the world and develop the cognitive and social skills they need to be really successful in life. Parents of young children are doing well if they are much less concerned with their two year old learning the alphabet than they are with providing her with time and space to explore and engage with the world around her.
Play is an Occupation
Despite my recognition of this, something about the phrase ‘learning through play’, as innocuous and as common as it is right now, didn’t line up with my perception of my son’s activities at the time. I can’t count the amount of time I’ve spent observing him, and later his brother, as he pulls scarves on and off his face, as he carefully places smaller toys inside of larger ones, as he flips the pages of his board books, over and over and over again. I’ve spent many afternoons pottering around the living room, while he babbled and crawled around, pulling every toy out of the box in turn, completely immersed and occupied with the objects at hand, hardly aware that I’m even in the room. That verb, ‘occupied’, starts to summarize the incongruity I felt between ‘learning through play’ and what my son does every day. He is occupied. He has an occupation. I don’t usually register that he is playing – what I see is my son working.
This might seem like a silly distinction, or otherwise that I’m really overestimating my toddlers, but I think that the words we use matter. They give us insight into the meaning and significance we give to something. I think they can even shape how we think about a particular concept.
The Trouble when Play is a Means to an End
My issue with ‘learning through play’ is that it makes play a means to an end: learning. Time devoted to play is valuable because learning results from it. Consequently, if we want to enhance learning, then we must enhance a child’s play – get them the right ‘educational’ toys and games, try to find the right balance between structured activities, free play, group activities, gross motor development, sensory play and so on. ‘Learning through play’ becomes a sort of defense tactic, used by early years professionals to protect their decision to forego flashcards and keep the dress-up clothes, by tired parents who feel the need to justify why they let their child spend an hour dropping pebbles into a puddle while they sit watching, instead of teaching them addition. They feel the need to establish the worth of what society views as simplistic and easy (the phrase ‘it’s child’s play’ comes to mind) by connecting it to something society esteems.
Consider the consequences of this mindset. There is a possibility that play becomes something to be assessed. A child’s choices about what to play and how to play can be evaluated for the skills and knowledge gained. Parents and educators are constantly looking past the activity, trying to find its ‘value’ by identifying the learning that is taking place and highlighting that. Play choices that are more difficult to connect to learning outcomes are put into another category: cute. Endearing, but not particularly important. Or, possibly, the child isn’t actually given many choices in play, but is directed to the activities that are more obviously educational.
The Immeasurable Value of Play
I compare this to the child who is at work when he plays. My first response is respect. The child knows his job description better than I do. I aim to not interrupt him when he is concentrating. I give him space to get on with things, and I do my best to be present when he wants to ask a question or share a toy. I trust that his chosen activities are developing his cognitive and social skills in precisely the right order and at the right pace. Fundamentally at odds with the above, though, is my recognition that his play is inherently valuable because he himself chooses to spend his time on it – not because it leads to something that our culture considers worthwhile.
Parenting in the Present
I’m less than three years into this parenting journey. The further along I go, the more convinced I am that in order to savor and appreciate the time I have with my children, I really must ‘not worry about tomorrow’. If I am constantly evaluating my sons’ activities for their educational merit, then I am taking myself out of the present moment. I’m no longer ‘with’ my sons in a sense. I’m distracted, forecasting how their play is going to make them smart and savvy adults. I don’t want to look back over these earliest years, wistful that it was all so fleeting. While life never really slows down, my hope is that I will have many memories and moments of being present with my sons – not fretting about the future, not longing for the day when they are out of diapers or can walk or talk, not contriving situations through which they will learn things – but of enjoying my sons’ current developmental stages, their play, their growth.
I know for many people, ‘learning through play’ is an off-the-cuff phrase that hardly merits further thought. My goal certainly isn’t to abolish the phrase, and I don’t think I’ll start waxing on to people who use it about why it’s not great. I do think that I will continue to leave it out of my own vocabulary, and given the opportunity, I will encourage other parents to be present, to let play be enough, to resist the temptation to project into the future and over-analyze the moment. Most of all, though, I will continue as much as possible to look at my sons with amazement and appreciation for who they are now – curious, engaged and focused little boys, capable of so much, contentedly employed with discovering the world.