Today, you don’t have to delve too far into current events without finding evidence of crisis. It seems like the political and social systems we have relied on for decades are just not working anymore. Some people are taking advantage of power, and many, many others are getting hurt. Many systems right now are in a state of disequilibrium. Needless to say, this is not a sustainable pattern and something needs to be done. I don’t know about you, but this makes me want to play!
As a preschool teacher, I immerse myself in play all day, every day. I couldn’t be happier. One of the reasons I love play so much is that it is so innate. It is pervasive in the animal kingdom. Scientists have found evidence of play in everything from dogs and bears to octopi and ants. Children rarely need to be taught how to play. As Maria Montessori said, “Play is the work of a child.” It is how they make sense of the world. During play, they are involved in an activity that is inherently motivating, enjoyable, and transcends time. They are challenged, but not intimidated. Their brain is working as they absorb the world.
As I watch my children play, I am continually inspired by their use of imagination. While playing, my children can figure out what it is like to be someone whom they are not, in a place where they are not. They can solve problems. They can decrease their stress levels They can take charge of a situation in a new way. They can build new relationships.
During play, children have the amazing power to abandon who they are and really become someone else. Already, my children this year have experienced what it would be like to take care of crying babies, teach a nest-full of baby birds how to fly, be a mud jeep, design a city for crickets, and be a purple camel. I have one child this year who frequently decides that he is Superman. I love watching him as Superman. His face lights up in a new way as he runs around the playground. He offers to help his peers in need. He will help me clean up to show me how strong Superman is. He runs around the playground faster than I have ever seen him move. As Superman, he is invincible. He reminds me of a quotation by sociocultural psychologist Lev Vygotsky: “In play, a child is above his average age, above his daily behavior; in play it is as though he were a head taller than himself.”
While playing, my children are solving problems. Last week, three girls were playing in our dramatic play area. They were busy making dinner and patting the backs of their baby dolls, when two boys approach them. “Let’s get on the airplane,” demands one of the boys. “I’m the dog,” asserts the others. I saw the apprehension in the girls’ faces as they process these home-intruders. “Shh,” says one girl, “My baby is sleeping.” But then, one of the other girls grabs a backpack and says, “I’ll drive to the airport.” She puts the dinner in the backpack, tucks her baby under her arm, and tells everyone to put on their seat belts. The five of them happily continue playing together for the rest of the morning.
In the adult world, I see an extreme resistance to imagination. It seems like it is all too easy for us to be absorbed in reality. We are too focused on “the way things work” and “who we are”. When new situations arise, when someone tells us to get on an airplane, we are too quick to push them away because the baby is sleeping. Really, it is our imaginations that are sleeping. I believe that this obsession with the present reality that has put our societal systems in crisis.
What would happen if we woke up our imaginations? Would we be able to find a synergistic level of problem-solving? Would we be able to abandon our previous plans and go explore new places? Would we be able grow a head-taller? Would we be able to harness powers that we never knew we had and run faster than we ever have before? I would love to find out. Who’s with me?
-“Play is the answer to how anything new comes about.” -Jean Piaget, Swiss developmental psychologist