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Value of Play III: How Children Confront Life's Challenges

In that worst environment, the Nazi death camp, children played.

Children's extraordinarily powerful drive to play did not come about to provide them with "recess" or "recreation." It came about for a far more serious purpose than that. It came about to help them survive. Throughout human history and pre-history, play has been children's primary means of acquiring the skills, values, and knowledge they need to survive within their culture. Children do not play to avoid the realities of life; they play at the realities of life. In doing so they come to grips with those realities--physically, intellectually, and emotionally.

In previous essays in this blog, I have described how play exercises and builds children's capacities for language, reasoning, locomotion, building things, and getting along with others (see especially the October 1, 2008, posting). I have there described play in ways that do not contradict the happy images we have of children playing at cherished activities in healthy environments. But play is not just adaptive in healthy environments. Play also helps children to confront and deal with the horrors of their world and ours, wherever those horrors exist.

We would like to think of children as fully sweet and innocent. In an ideal world, where the adults are fully sweet and innocent, children might be too. But the world is not ideal, and children growing up protected from the realities of the environment in which they must eventually make their way would be poorly equipped for that environment. It is no wonder that children resist the protective embraces of well-meaning adults, fight the restraints meant to keep them in idyllic playgrounds, and venture out, however and whenever they can, to experience the real world around them and incorporate it into their play. They, not we, know what's best for them.

The most dramatic evidence I know of concerning children's drive to embrace even the worst horrors of their environment through play is found in a remarkable book by George Eisen, published twenty years ago, entitled Children and Play in the Holocaust. Here are two concepts that lie at opposite ends of anyone's emotional spectrum: Nazi Holocaust and children playing. It is shocking to see the two next to one another in Eisen's title. And yet, as Eisen explains to us throughout the book, children interred in Nazi ghettos and concentration camps played--however briefly, until they were murdered. They played not because they were oblivious to the horrors around them. Nor did they play as a means to deny those horrors or divert their attention from them. Rather, they played in ways that helped them to understand, confront, and, to the degree possible, deal effectively with those horrors. Eisen's evidence comes from diaries and from interviews with survivors.

In the ghettos, the first stage in concentration before being sent off to labor and extermination camps, adults attempted to preserve for their children some semblance of the innocent play they had known before; but the children themselves, on their own, played games that fit their surroundings. They played games of war, of "blowing up bunkers," of "slaughtering," of "seizing the clothes of the dead," and games of resistance. At Vilna, Jewish children played "Jews and Gestapomen," in which the Jews would overpower their tormenters and beat them with their own rifles (sticks).

Even in the extermination camps, the children who were still healthy enough to move around played. In one camp they played a game called "tickling the corpse." At Auschwitz-Birkenau they dared one another to touch the electric fence. They played "gas chamber," a game in which they threw rocks into a pit and screamed the sounds of people dying. They made up a game called klepsi-klepsi--a common term for stealing--that was modeled on the camp's daily roll call. One playmate was blindfolded; then one of the others would step forward and hit him hard on the face; and then, with blindfold removed, the one who had been hit had to guess, from facial expressions or other evidence, who had hit him. To survive at Auschwitz, one had to be an expert at lying--for example, about stealing bread or about knowing of someone's escape or resistance plans--without giving oneself away. Klepsi-klepsi seemed to be practice for that skill.

In play, whether it is the sweet play we like to envision or the play described by Eisen, children bring the realities of their world into a fictional context, where it is safe to look those realities in the eye, to confront them, to experience them, and to practice ways of dealing with them. Some people think that violent play creates violent adults; but in reality the opposite is true. Violence in the adult world leads children, quite properly, to play at violence. How else can they prepare themselves emotionally, intellectually, and physically, for reality? It is wrong to think that somehow we can reform the world, for the future, by controlling children's play and controlling what they learn. If we want to reform the world, we have to reform the world; and children will follow suit. The children must, and will, prepare themselves for the the real world in which they must strive to survive. Let's try to make that word, in reality, not in pretense, as happy a one as we can.


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