Ordinarily, teachers and parents sort children’s activities into two categories: work and play. When children amuse themselves, make up games, tell stories, interact with other children, and initiate their own activity, it’s considered play. Work is whatever a child does that someone else insists on . Even within school, we segregate the purposeful, goal-oriented activity that leads to academic gains from the other parts of the day. However, this set of labels for categorizing children’s activities, though seemingly innocuous, leads to a serious misunderstanding of cognitive development.
Counter to what most people think, it’s not what children do, the materials they use, or even their mood that renders their activity play. We tend to think that if children are using toys, or laughing, or playing a recognized game, it must be play, and that when they are doing chores or learning school material, it must be work. Play might involve a game like traffic jam or chess, pretending to be doctors, or throwing a ball. But play might just as
easily involve hammering nails, planning an imaginary trip with another child, laboriously digging a hole in the dirt, or even cleaning the tables. Children’s play can occur in the car, in the grocery line, while doing math, or in circle time. They might look delighted or joyful, but they might also look dead serious, or even distraught. Play is not a certain activity, nor is it the opposite of work. Not in childhood. Play is a psychological stance toward the world.
The benefits of such play cannot simply be isolated and infused into more conventional academic activities. It can be tempting for teachers to try to make activities that are nothing like play more appealing by inviting children to decorate the page; choosing content or examples that seem silly or lively; or adding a competitive gamelike quality. These small flourishes might make certain dreary tasks more fun, but they won’t transform a nonplay activity into play. There are three reasons why.
First, children throw themselves into the intellectual and social challenges presented by building forts, enacting superheroes and animals, digging tunnels, and inventing games because they so desperately want to engage in the play itself. They are willing to forge their way through any number of puzzles, setbacks, and conflicts, and have enormous energy and stamina for such activity. The commitment and industriousness elicited during their own spontaneous play cannot easily be simulated in activities imposed by an adult, no matter how delightful the activities may seem to the adult suggesting them.
Second, most of the time children’s play is quite complex. Usually, even a five-minute stretch draws on several kinds of psychological processes: a child at play may need to invent new uses for available objects; use his imagination to transform objects and settings; recall specific roles he wants to reenact; borrow conventional tropes and rules from songs, stories, and everyday scenarios he has witnessed; and negotiate a variety of information, interpretations, and plans with his playmates. For the most part, children’s own spontaneous play is bound to be more intellectually challenging to them than any playlike activity a teacher imposes. The intellectual benefits cannot be predetermined. If and when adults try to co-opt play in this way, the underlying structure and value of play are quickly undermined.
Finally, because, by definition, the value of play comes from the fact that the child wants to play, and has to come up with the play him- or herself, any attempt to simply make a lesson playful misses the very psychological characteristic that renders play such a powerful means for learning during childhood. Play is the child’s work.
Susan Engel is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology and Founding Director of the Program in Teaching at Williams College. She currently serves as the Williams College Gaudino Scholar, a position that creates and promotes opportunities for students to stretch beyond what they are familiar with. She has taught all ages from three year olds through college. Her research interests include the development of curiosity, children’s narratives, play, and more generally, teaching and learning. Her current research looks at the development of children’s ideas. Her scholarly work has appeared in journals such as Cognitive Development, Harvard Educational Review, and the American Education Research Journal.
She is the author of seven previous books: The Stories Children Tell: Making Sense of the Narratives of Childhood, Context is Everything: The Nature of Memory, Real Kids: Making Sense in Everyday Life, Red Flags or Red Herrings: Predicting Who Your Child Will Become, The Hungry Mind: The Origins of Curiosity in Childhood, The End of the Rainbow: How Educating for Happiness (Not Money) Would Transform Our Schools, and most recently, A School of Our Own: The Story of the First Student-Run High School, and a New Vision for American Education which she co-wrote with her son Sam. Her writing on education has appeared in The New York Times, The Nation, The Atlantic Monthly, Salon, The Huffington Post, and The Boston Globe.
Susan is one of the founders of an experimental school in New York State, where she served as educational advisor for eighteen years. She lives in New Marlborough, Massachusetts with her husband Tom Levin. They have three sons, Jake, Will, and Sam.