Watching my son turn a tree branch into a sword, an oar, a bridge, and a magic wand within minutes was the inspiration that led to my experiment. When a child’s imagination can transform a few simple props into a fairyland, a pirate ship, a store, a restaurant, or a play house, you see real play in action. With some string, a few large cloths, and some twigs, blocks, or bean bags your child has all he or she needs to have the truly rich experience of real play.
Play is serious business. It is through play that our children learn about themselves and their relationship to the world. It is a sad occurrence when we allow our children to spend an afternoon in front of the TV or when we allow them to sit and watch a toy that does its job without the aid of a healthy imagination. When children are kept away from the over-stimulating and imagination-robbing television sets, video games, and toys that come with batteries, the beauty of real play can genuinely shine.
I began to do part-time day care in my home a few months ago and was shocked to see how many children have no idea how to play. They look at my son’s baskets of treasures (cloths, sticks, rocks, leaves, pine cones, etc.) and genuinely have no idea of how to transform a pine cone into a “delicious fruit,” “the magic crystal,” or “little forest folk.” Many went home crying, complaining that I have no toys to play with and no TV to watch. Some parents were offended that I did not provide “anything for the children to do.”
A few allowed their children to stay, and after a period of time came to realize that day care at my house was a truly enriching experience. They realized many of their youngsters were robbed of their imaginative vision, their creativity, and their ability to think and to discover. These children were from affluent families who “have it all” and on the subject of play, they were the most unfortunate. As the days dragged on (and they did those first few weeks) I found myself not as an adult who just looked after the children, but as a fellow child who wanted to play.
I have to admit now that I considered it a personal mission to bring something rich and joyous into the lives of these “deprived” children. I tried to remember all that I had learned and read as a student teacher about “modeling” appropriate behavior in Waldorf teacher literature. I began with the simple act of modeling fun and curious behavior. I basically wandered around the house and yard, talking to myself, trying to be as free as I could. I spoke to fairies and bugs, greeted the birds and the trees, and began to turn everything I saw into an opportunity to play.
When I gently picked up the old pillow and began to lovingly hum a lullaby to the “baby,” these children gave me looks like I had fallen from another planet. When I announced that the restaurant was now serving lunch, and served up plates of leaves and flower petals, they said I was “weird” and “crazy.” After some time though, I noticed that they were becoming aware of all of the opportunities opening up to them, if only they looked. I wanted to give them something more, something they were not getting at home…
Although gifts from well-meaning grandparents have added a great selection of games, puzzles, train tracks and trains, and even a few Playmobil sets to my son’s collection of toys, these were put away. The only “toys” I made available were a few capes, scarves, two play stands, six clips, a few old bowls, plates, pots, pans, a few wooden spoons, and baskets of items we found in the yard. Outside, we had various lengths of rope hanging from several trees, balls of many sizes, and a couple of kites. It was very difficult at first, but after three months, I must say that even the most unimaginative children were now playing peacefully and very creatively with the simple props I provided.
Every day is a new opportunity for the children to create a new world. They grow self-confident when, “from scratch,” they build something wonderful. I notice that they have calmed down and that their play is more focused, quieter, and more fun. When I hear them plan to build a store or set up a house, it is cooperation in action. It is awe inspiring to see how their imaginations have expanded over just a few short weeks. I’m convinced that even late-starters richly benefit from being allowed to be “deprived” of their toys.
Many parents just cannot grasp the concept of real play. With the endless attacks of the media pushing new, improved, do-it-all products at them, it’s no wonder. Many of us have become victims of consumerism without even realizing it is so easy to get all caught up in it when we have neighbors, schools, play groups, etc., where children share what they have and don’t have. We want to be the best parents that we can be. We want to give our children everything we were denied. But sadly, it is when this occurs that’ we actually hurt our children.
The parents that have stuck through the difficult early times have commented how their children love to come over to play. They have asked me where they could get a play stand, some unique clips, and cloth. I tell them that many of our play cloths are old cotton sheets or table cloths, or squares of silk from the thrift shop. I suggest hunting secondhand stores for props that could be used as dress-up clothes; old hats, gloves, belts, skirts, oversized dinner jackets, and more. There are also some wonderful catalogs available where parents dedicated to protecting the art of children’s play have made available some wonderful but simple products.
The most important things I learned from my experiment are that it’s never too late to start; it doesn’t need to be practiced religiously or fanatically; and if we take the time to gently lead our children, they will happily follow. It is, after all, our duty as parents to teach our children. Showing them that it’s fun to roll down a hill, act silly with a huge pine cone on our heads, or construct a structure from twigs, rocks, leaves, or whatever you may find in the yard is what being a parent is all about.
Play springs forth from within the imagination. A healthy imagination is nurtured by protecting it from harmful outside images of unreal or grotesque images (such as the cartoons on television or in video games). Basic simplicity invites the imagination to awaken. An awakened imagination fosters creativity, which leads to problem solving, innovative thinking, and rich experiences. Put away all of your children’s toys for a day, dispose of your adult inhibitions, and let the real play begin.
Suggested Titles for Further Reading:
How Children Play
Genius of Play: Celebrating the Spirit of Childhood
Children at Play: Using Waldorf Principles
Work and Play in Early Childhood
About the Authhor: Kytka Hilmar-Jezek, Ph.D.
Waldorf Inspired Students at Home