I read a book recently, by John Holt, famous author and supporter if the Homeschooling/Unschooling movement. It is called Teaching Your Own. John Holt's books always make me think of things in a different perspective. His examples and explanations make think of the things the way children see them, most recently play. In his book, Teaching Your Own, there is a chapter called "Serious Play," which talks about the importance of play in learning. I always knew children learned through play, but not until I read this chapter was I able to truly understand how.
As many know, children learn the basics through play. Textures as a baby. Maybe colors and numbers, or even letters as toddlers. And as they grow, they are learning more about social skills, making their toys interact with one another. They may even create their own experiments, taking things apart and putting them back together or putting them in water to see what they do. (I used to struggle with buying S toys that were not labeled educational, until I learned this. Now my only rule is to limit toys that don't require imagination. She has lots of building materials and plastic animals like dinosaurs and fish.)
Back to the matter at hand, John Holt proposes that children use play as a way to act out life experiences, to practice living in our world, which we see in many instances, such as play store and play cooking or taking care of babies. I believe there is lot of value in this. After all, sooner or later we will all go grocery shopping or cook a meal. Kids can learn recipes, math, and other real world concepts through this. Sometimes I can hear S listing the ingredients of something or experimenting with how much something in a store might cost.
However, Holt also proposes another, less evident, reason for play. Children are just learning how to deal with the events in this world, and they experience hurt on a regular basis. To deal with this, children may be seen or heard acting out situations they have been a part of. My daughter will sometimes make her Little Pet Shops say things to each other like, "You can't play with us. You are weird." Or "We don't want to play with you because you are a girl." I used to tell her to stop and use nicer words. I couldn't understand why she was doing that, until I read that chapter. Holt states children use play to act out those painful experiences over and over again until they gain complete control of the situation, and therefore are no longer hurting, which makes perfect sense. S eventually stops playing out the scenarios she once couldn't stop re-playing.
And if you consider yourself, and you are anything like most people I have talked to, when a hurtful or even exciting event takes place, you can't stop replaying it in your head. Maybe it could have gone different or maybe you just have to keep telling yourself the exciting news. Sound like you?
Another observation, I have also noticed her play is different when she is playing by herself or with me than when she is playing with another friend or my little brother.
With me, or alone, she does a lot of experimenting, slow thinking, and more so lately, story telling.
With her peers, S is more active, playing pretend and learning to compromise-who will be the Husband? Who will be the baby? Are we cooking or grocery shopping? Who gets to wear the green hat?
I believe there is good in mixing both. Too much alone play may produce boredom. Too much group play may cause over stimulation and lack of alone time that children need to quietly play and figure things out on their own.
If you have not read any of John Holt's books or his Growing Without Schooling, I strongly advise you too, especially this one. Even if you are not a homeschooling parent, Holt presents things in a way that makes you understand the mind if a child, using real life situations as examples. And I have found the more I understand the mind of my daughter, the closer we grow, because I can use the "stop, think, and understand" approach to parenting.