In September my kids changed school because my teaching husband also changed schools. One of the things that I LOVE about their new school is that they have rediscovered the art of playing. They don’t have a massive space in which to play, but all 85 children, from tiny to teenage, interact together in the playground before and after school. Such is their love of this time, kids race to be first to school and most are reluctant to leave at the end of the day.
Here’s what it looks like. You’ll see some towering, cool-looking teenage lad comforting a tiny tot of a girl who has just tripped over. You’ll have older kids teaching younger ones how to do the monkey bars. You have extended games of ‘mums and dads’ that involve great numbers of sisters, aunties, babies – and teenage mums and dads. In this small space they invent their own games with detailed rules – like sand tag. They become amazing basketball players – because there are hoops, and basketball is a great way to play with one another. They become filthy from scrubbing about in the dirt, digging holes in the sand pit and making homes for the beetles. They become healthy and strong from playing on the equipment. And more than anything they develop a love of play that fuels their imaginations.
I feel that in our world of amazing, advanced toys, computer games and screens, we are in danger of forgetting the pure and simple beauty of PLAYING.
The developmental benefits of play are astonishing. Play lays a foundation for literacy, because it enables children to practise and experiment with new vocabulary; it stretches their imaginations through storytelling. (This is currently so true for my children who are learning more Arabic these days, and who conduct many of their games in a fake Arabic language, testing out the sounds and letters that they are learning in class).
Play enables the development of skills in coordination, dexterity and movement. Educators are noticing problems with children who a lack strength and dexterity in their fingers for writing because only one finger is well-exercised – the one that swipes!
Play enables children to work on their beliefs, morals and ethics. When children interact with one another they are forced to deal with concepts such as sharing, negotiating, mediating, advocating. They impose on their imaginative play the things that they see modelled around them, and they experiment with how those things mete out – role-playing families, doctors, school. This type of play can even help them master and conquer their fears as they play out adult scenarios and roles.
As a parent it is all too easy to feel guilty for simply leaving our children to play. We are influenced by the idea that their time should be scheduled; that they develop best if they are engaged in structured, stimulating activities; that their musical, artistic and sporting skills should be honed and developed through clubs, and classes, and courses. These things clearly have benefits, but to what cost do we cut out free play?
Play is so important that it has been recognised as an individual right by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (article 31). There are so many children in the world for whom play is a luxury. There are so many children in Egypt for whom play is a luxury. They must go out to work at a young age to earn a living. They must participate in running the household. They must work diligently at school to improve the lot of their family. Yet even in constrained circumstances the desire to play will break out.
The South African comedian, Trevor Noah, tells a brilliant anecdote about his childhood in a Sowetan township where the kids would use bricks as cars. The goal was to find a strong brick that would stay in-tact throughout a barrage of car crashes. Once you had found a strong brick, you would feel so proud! Others would be intimidated by the power of your brick! You see similar things with the kids in the streets here, being creative with different items in order to create their own imaginative worlds. Even my kids, with access to ‘luxury’ toys, find endless entertainment with sticks, stones and dirt. The other morning, I sat for a good 15 minutes at the side of the road while my youngest collected sticks and carefully snapped them into pieces to build a ‘fire’.
It is easy to think that because we live in an urban jungle, play is harder for our kids. But we need to allow them the freedom to be creative. Kids will use anything to fuel their play.
In this season of my life, my kids come home from school, exhausted and filthy and with holes in their clothes. My laundry pile seems greater than it ever has because clothes are rarely fit to be worn two days in a row, and yet I delight in this. I delight in their dirty, sweaty exhaustion because in it I see the beauty, the joy and the art of PLAY.
This article was published in the March edition of the Maadi Messenger