I always heard this but didn’t know what it meant. I mean, I wasn’t an ogre that didn’t want my child to play or anything, but I couldn’t really figure out what the big deal was with buying all these toys and developmental items, etc etc. Doesn’t it seem kind of silly to expect a child to play all day and then have them learn anything real?
Yes and no. It’s true that a child’s play is his learning. At least, almost exclusively until he turns 5. After that point, “real” life and play need to coincide more.
For one, a child comes into the world without much experience. I won’t say he has no experience because studies have shown that prenatal babies do respond to voice, music, soothing sounds, temperature, and other things from their womb days. He clearly has sensory experience from being cooped up like a cocoon, feeling hot or cold liquids enter your body, and being squeezed down the canal. He also has motor experiences from kicking or sucking in there, and precognitive experiences that we probably can’t measure but we know are there from brainwaves, etc. But generally speaking, a baby comes out tabula rasa and needs all kinds of encounters in his environment to develop to his potential.
Playing provides the encounters. Not just playing, but playing in a context where there is a benevolent guide (you), safety, and opportunities to explore. As a child interacts with his environment, toys or props call him out of himself and into the outer world. Where he is born knowing only the feel of his empty stomach, his mother’s voice and brightly colored crib mobile call for his attention. He begins to recognize sights, smells, and sounds. He begins to notice patterns in the world. He begins to be curious, and to realize that he can reach things he wants, build or create things himself, and bang or manipulate objects at will. These are all foundational skills for information (things people will teach him) to use later. It is my personal hypothesis that perhaps autism begins here, at this early stage, where the child is not naturally called out of his own environment into others’; it would definitely explain why Early Intervention and floortimes can be so successful the earlier they are implemented.
Regardless, this is also why good toys provide an avenue for development. If they are stimulating, interesting, flexible, purposeful, imaginative, and age appropriate, they can help your child develop by working with the skills he has and encouraging them to go to the next level. A child can spend all day in play pretty happily, if he is provided novel opportunities. And when a child is working on a specific skill, you can sometimes tell because they latch onto a certain toy for a certain season and work and rework it over and over again. This is not stupidity… this is cementing. When the brain finally has enough from that stimulus, it will lay it down and encourage the child to find another. In a sense, then, a developing child has two organs of appetite: its stomach, and its brain.
However, people make the mistake that because a child learns from playing, that the toys themselves are actually educational. They really aren’t. Some toys are better than others, and some toys give children more opportunities or are more challenging. Some even teach information like the alphabet or nursery rhymes, which is nice. But toys in themselves do not make your child smarter. It is the interaction with them that does. In other words, it is the brain’s development and manipulation of the toys that does the teaching, but the brain requires help and guidance from you (a person). Picture a closed circuit with the brain influencing the toy, and the toy influencing the brain. It is a feedback loop. But the fuel in this loop is you.
Why? Because you as the wiser adult can sense external information that is not in the loop. You can judge whether a toy is too easy or hard for the child; the child does not have any way to know this. You can see if there is a new way to remake the legos and show the child; the child would probably get “stuck” after a point and not be able to go farther. You are smart enough to imagine all kinds of scenarios the child could act out with play clothes or action figures; the child needs those types of scripts implanted before he can manipulate them in novel ways himself. For all these reasons and more, it is imperative that an older person be working with that child to encourage them to learn.
As a psychologist and educator, my fear is that our culture is losing this message. We really think the average child is a Good Will Hunting or a Finding Forrester who self-teaches. We really think their brain will somehow figure it out or gain appreciation without being taught. And sometimes this is the case. But rarely. Most children (even smart ones!) need to be developed, and proactively influenced by adults. They need them to tell them what’s beautiful, what’s purposeful, and what new ways they can explore. They need them to provide the opportunities, help them through some, and reflect on them together. Children can learn more passively from a television or video game, but they cannot interact with that source of information. They can teach themselves (and in fact, need to in many cases), but it might take them a long time to stumble upon the revelation they’re looking for. They are better off if we work with them and provide a sturdy framework for them to work in.
In our hands-off, too busy culture, however, this is a difficult message. People don’t have time for their kids or their foolish little games. They don’t have time to help them with their homework or, God forbid, suggest an extra activity that they might need to help them love or master something. They choose to take a wait-and-see approach to their children: whatever personality they are born with, or whatever aptitudes they show on their own, is what they must have. You can’t afford to do this with special needs children, and you shouldn’t do it with average children either.
In fact, if you had to choose either you and no toys or toys but no you, you would definitely want your child to choose you with no toys. They’d get bored with new blocks way before they get bored with you. So recognize that playing is your child’s learning, and encourage play. And don’t feel guilty if you don’t have time or patience to get involved with every little thing they’re working with. But do recognize that for the play to be maximally beneficial, it needs guidance and interaction. Your involvement will help the child take it to the next level, cognitively and morally, and this is what really speeds your child down the path of independence, charity, and success.