Nevertheless, I cant quite stop talking about the serious side of play. Play is fun, but it is also meaningful and complex. The more intelligent the animal, the more it plays. Unlike slugs or trees, every human learns new things about the world, and themselves, through discovery and practice. Some of this learning just happens automatically, by virtue of being alive, but much of it happens through play. Human childhood has gotten longer and longer, which means an increasing amount of time available for play. Play is important, not just because children do so much of it, but because there are layers and layers of meaning to even the most casual play.
Take an apparently simple game like catch--a child and a parent tossing a baseball back and forth. Much like observing pond water under a microscope, close observation of a game of catch reveals a great deal going on right under our noses. The child is developing hand-eye coordination and gross motor skills; the pair are enjoying their special time together; the child practices a new skill until it is mastered, and then joyfully shows it off; the rhythm of the ball flying back and forth is a bridge, reestablishing a deep connection between adult and child; and comments like good try and nice catch build confidence and trust.
But this straightforward game can also contain strong undercurrents of feeling. A father I was seeing in therapy described a game of catch during which his son threw him one zinger after another. He could see how angry and frustrated his son was by how hard he was throwing the ball. Together we figured out that perhaps his son was really asking him, Can you catch what I throw at you? Are my feelings too much for you? Am I safe from my own impulses, my own anger? Another fathers son loved to play catch, but whenever he missed the ball, the boy would dissolve into tears and tantrums and say, I told you to throw it lower--you never listen to me! In this case, the child seemed to be using the game as a way to release a pile of hurt feelings that had nothing to do with baseball.
Not every game of catch, or every playtime with a child, contains all of these multiple levels of meaning. But all play is more profoundly meaningful than we usually think. First, play is a way to try on adult roles and skills, just as lion cubs do when they wrestle with one another. Human children roughhouse, and they play house. As children discover the world, and discover what they are able to do in the world, they develop confidence and mastery.
Play is also a way to be close and, even more important, a way to reconnect after closeness has been severed. Chimpanzees like to tickle one anothers palms, especially after they have had a fight. Thus, the second purpose of play serves our incredible--almost bottomless--need for attachment and affection and closeness.
The third purpose of play for children, and perhaps the one that is most uniquely human, is to recover from emotional distress. Imagine children who have had a hard day at school. They come home and one way or another show you that theyre hurting. They talk about it, or they are irritable and obnoxious. They lock themselves in their room, or they insist on extra attention. But most often, they spontaneously use play to feel better. Perhaps they play school, only this time they are the teacher. Maybe they play a video game and blow up alien enemies for a while. Or they call a friend and talk about it, which is what older children and adults often do instead of play. By pretending, or by retelling the story, the scene can be re-created. This time, the child is in charge. Through playing it out, emotional healing takes place. Escaping into a book or playing a hard game of tennis can also be helpful after a bad day.
One child I knew, who had lots of reading difficulties, would always come home from school and do something she was really good at, which was drawing. Before dinner she would show her parents what she had drawn. In one sweet moment, she was reconnecting with them, restoring her sense of competence, and recovering from the frustration and humiliation of feeling like a failure at school.
Excerpted from Playful Parenting by Lawrence J. Cohen, Ph.D. Copyright 2001 by Lawrence J. Cohen, Ph.D.. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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