February 3rd was National Play Day. This global event involved over 100,000 children. Students arrived at school that day and instead of the typical curriculum, the focus was child-driven, unstructured and free of any screentime. When exactly did playing become something we needed to schedule a day for? And while National Play Day is a beautiful effort towards highlighting the essential role that play plays in our children’s overall physical, emotional, social and intellectual development, the need for a special day suggests just how far astray we have traveled in our understanding of what our children need to develop and learn; beginning with the reality that one day will just not cut it. Ever. Nor will any other top-down, adult scheduled ideas about how and when children should play.
It puts me in mind of the notices that would be sent home around standardized testing time reminding parents to make sure the kids got a good night’s sleep, ate a healthy breakfast and were sent to school with a healthy snack. Each time I would receive one of these notices, my blood would boil. Why was this reminder coming at testing time instead of it being the way we supported our children each and every day? And why is it that we select, schedule and commodify “special” times and events for doing things that our children require each and every day? Why? Because in our busy, fast paced, machine-driven orientation to life, we have become blind to our own needs, and therefore to the needs of our children.
Play seems so frivolous and so very expendable in a world where if things are not immediately accessible and known to us then they must surely be irrelevant and a waste of time. But then the latest research will tell us that play will make our kids smarter, more emotionally stable, and then of course we will feel guilted into scheduling it in. We will make it a priority, wondering all the while how we will possibly keep up with all of the ever-increasing demands that we as parents must meet these days in raising our children. We will schedule more playdates because it is good for them. We will join in with National Play Day once a year. We will stretch ourselves thinner and thinner, all the while completely missing the point. That point being that there is no point to play and that it shows up all on its own with nothing required of us grown-ups. It is not a matter of doing more, but of doing less.
If you are stuck, look to the children. No one needs to convince a child to play. It is only the adults that need to be reminded. Joseph Campbell once wrote that what we are all really looking for is the experience of being alive. No one knows the feeling of being alive better than children at play. They do not require research, special occasions or reasons. They do not require store bought accoutrements or an adult to take the lead. Maybe, instead of scheduling playdates and national play days, we should all sit back, leave lots of space in our children’s day, and watch what happens. It might actually turn out to be exactly what we all need.