Source: Peter Gray, with permission of subject

How to Enjoy, Not Destroy, Children’s Play

In his blog post on Psychology Today researcher, Peter Gray observed a little boy of about 4 or 5 years old who was engrossed in creating a Christmas ornament.

He ignores the hustle and bustle around him and allows himself to become completely absorbed by his project. On his own, he decides to glue small, round white beans onto a large pinecone in such a way that each of the roughly 60 lobes of the pinecone will have exactly one bean precisely in its center. He doesn’t announce this to anyone; he just starts doing it. His expression is one of intense concentration. Using the glue gun, very carefully with his little hands, he squeezes a single tiny drop of hot glue squarely onto the center of one of the pinecone lobes and then, before the glue hardens, places a bean ever so gently on the drop of glue. It takes him about half an hour to finish his task of gluing a bean onto every lobe. During this entire time he does not move from his work place. He does not say a word, and nobody–I am pleased to observe–says a word to him.

As I watch, a woman asks me if I think it is safe for such a little child to use a hot glue gun. I tell her that I have been watching him and he is being more careful than anyone else at the table. There is no need to caution him or to do the gluing for him. The former would interrupt his concentration and the latter would spoil his play completely. I am grateful that the boy’s parents and all others who see him are wise enough to leave him alone at this activity. Imagine all the ways that an over-involved adult could ruin his play. The adult could deprive him of the challenge by kindly doing all the difficult or “dangerous” parts for him, distract his concentration with unsolicited advice or cheerful chatter, hurry him along so he could get to other projects but have inadequate time for this one, or praise his work in ways that would shift his attention away from the process (which is most important to him) and toward the product (which is less important). Because nobody disturbs him, this boy experiences sublime solo immersion in artistic creation, and I experience the joy of watching him and learning from him. I learn lessons of self-determination, concentration, persistence, and painstaking craftsmanship.

I know that I have been guilty of ruining children’s play. As an early years teacher, I was expected to enrich the children’s language during their free play sessions. I soon realised that this never worked. As soon as I arrived on the scene, the play would stultify, and the children would become embarrassed. I thought this was because I was just bad at it. It never occurred to me that the instruction to do this was at fault.

Oh dear, I know that we all do our best with the knowledge and experiences that we’ve had. But do wish I had known better.

I now know that there is a time and place for enriching vocabulary; while reading a book, during discussion or on an outing, but not when the children are getting along perfectly fine without an adult.

I encourage you to read Peter’s post because he also talks about how even the presence of an observing adult can have a detrimental effect on children’s play.

I love that there are educators who have observation tasks in their job description, for instance, Montessori teachers. Maybe I should retrain.

What has your experience been regarding adult intervention of children’s play?

Picture from Peter Gray’s article.