Meaningful Play

From parenting blogs to neurological studies, people are singing the praises of play these days. For decades, Waldorf education has been a forerunner proponent of play-based education, but what exactly is meaningful play? Is all play created equal?


Play is not just the act of “playing” but rather a creative impulse from within. Through play, children develop the ability to regulate emotions, process fears and anger, build resilience and develop empathy for others. Through play children learn to respect others and see that the needs of others are as important as their own.  During play, children also learn to take a thought, an idea or an item and expand on it in a new way. In this way, play fosters creativity which evolves into creative thinking.


Over my years as a Waldorf Kindergarten teacher, I have on many occasions, witnessed one child creating play and another child adding to the evolution of that play. For example, a boy in my class a few years back worked very hard gathering boards and stools and these big wooden spools we had in the classroom, and he fashioned a truck. He sat up front and proceeded to “drive” around.  Another little boy admired the truck and suggested that it become a trash truck.  Immediately the two boys gathered more boards, this time curved ones, and added a back to the truck where all the trash would go. Then they got back in and resumed “driving.” Soon they went over to the kitchen area where a boy and girl had set up a store. There they sold pizzas made out of slices of tree trunks. The boys ate their pizza then threw them in the back of their trash truck. Soon some other children who had been playing house, castle, and so on started hauling their refuse over to the truck and “cleaned up” the classroom. Then all together the class of children pushed the back of the truck with all the “garbage” over to a sorting and recycling station and the items made their way back into play. By this point, the whole group was involved in contributing ideas and molding and shaping the play, that all started from one solitary child and his idea to fashion a truck.


On a different day, the children in my class were playing different things in small groups. There was another pizza shop and there was also a hospital. It was a troublesome day for the hospital with many sick patients. They were being laid into hospital beds made of play stands and boards, and “bandaged” with silks, cloths and ties. But even with all that care, more patients were falling sick and nobody was getting better. That is until the “pizza seller” suggested that her magic pizzas might cure the patients. She loaded up a wagon with all the pizzas she could make and brought them to the hospital. Sure enough it was just the right thing and immediately the patients were fully recovered.


This type of social play affords children the freedom to imagine their world in new and creative ways, rather than being constrained by facts and scientific truths. It teaches them how to communicate their ideas to others and how those ideas may shift, based upon other ideas from other children. Think of how these skills would be useful in the adult world. A child that has the opportunity to work within the context of a group and confidently offer ideas that may or may not get implemented, learns the skills and resilience needed to work as an adult in a group where creative solutions are required. Such an adult can appreciate the contributions of others as well as have the confidence to suggest ideas of his or her own.


Other kinds of play do exist, but they do not offer quite the same experience for a young child. Play that involves structured activities or that is based upon something that is preformed for the child offers more of a consumption experience, rather than a creation one. Computer games, organized sports, certain types of classes, and television all fall into this category. They limit imagination with the constraints of preformed concepts and images, which can hinder abstract thinking. When children are burdened by too many of such experiences, play can get stunted. Some other examples of play from my classes have had different results.


Once there was a group of children playing bunnies and wolves together. They fashioned a bunny and wolf house out of play stands and blankets, and they gathered beanbags and chunks of wood for their food. They went out together and down to the river that they had made from a big blue blanket. There they got made fishing poles and trolled the waters for fish. Some tied sand bags onto their lines and hauled in their catch. Then together the wolves and bunnies made their way back to their house to cook their fish for dinner and go to sleep. All was quite good in the bunny and wolf world until another child who had learned all about animals came and told the group they were wrong. Bunnies and wolves could not live together. It just wouldn’t happen, they wouldn’t have a house together, they wouldn’t play together and they wouldn’t fish together. In fact wolves made meals of bunnies and that is why they could never be friends. The play stopped and the bunny wolf house was taken apart. This child was so full of the facts, that he couldn’t appreciate the imagery that the other children were living in. The game was reaching at something more subtle and perhaps metaphorical, but that was equally real for the children.


In another class, there was a child who was playing robot. The robot could do all sorts of interesting things and had many clippers and ropes that worked all the different parts. Many other children were intrigued by the robot and wanted to play robot too. They fashioned themselves with clippers and ropes, and even some other appendages made from silks and bean bags, but the original robot told them they were doing it wrong. The ropes and clippers were to be just so, just like on the movie and just like on the toy. The other children tried again to make themselves into robots and to join in the play, but it wasn’t to be. Pretty soon they all left to play different things and the robot played alone.


Sometimes we think that when a child asks a question he or she wants a factual answer. But if we offer such answers too often, we take our child’s natural sense of wonder and stuff it with finished concepts. This leaves little room for letting wonder lead the way to discovery. The best advice I was ever given was to answer the child’s question of why with, “hmmm…I wonder, what do you think?” With that answer, the child is free to: explore; experiment; investigate; ponder; imagine; create and invent … all through the magical world of play.