Last month’s topic was ‘music’, this month’s, ‘play’. The valuing of play is a major reason why people choose to Waldorf educate, whether at home or in a school setting.
What is play? Play is free-ranging exploration that has no agenda other than that of the person who is playing. Being mindful of this ‘no agenda’ characteristic of free play is very important: no agenda means open-ended toys which can be anything a child wants them to be. Open-ended also means being free from adults who interrogate a child with ‘what are you doing?’ or other well-meaning but usually intrusive questions. A child who wants an adult to share in her imaginations will do so!
Play begins mainly as a solitary endeavor, with the baby focused on exploring his body and interacting with others. As a child passes though toddlerhood and begins to have a sense of himself as an ‘I’, he is more able to play with others: for in playing with others, one has to be able to respect boundaries, whether of rules, comfort, skills and needs of the Other. But this takes many years and tiny children, though they may certainly enjoy the company of other tinies, cannot be expected to ‘play nicely.’
Learning to ‘play nicely’ is an important part of play. And as with all other human experiences which form a person’s character, this takes time. Learning to negotiate boundaries, play by the rules, and be able to balance one’s own needs and desires with those of another person are major life lessons that take many years to develop.
Navigating conflict is another important area of life addressed by play and adults do a great disservice to children if they do not allow children to experience conflict with another child. Sometimes such conflicts do need to be managed sensitively (not wiped away) by adults but many times the children need to be left to figure it out themselves.
There are many ways that children play as they grow. Sometimes there is a need for others. Sometimes children should be allowed to play alone. And sometimes it is fine for an adult to play with his children: yet this must be in balance, the parent never becoming the antidote to boredom, never becoming a source of unending entertainment. Indeed, boredom is a great teacher, giving one the opportunity to look within for its remedy. Children and teens who are allowed to always look outward (to other people, to media, to endless books and toys) are not given the vital opportunities to look within, to be self sufficient, and to creatively find ways to entertain themselves.