It is difficult to know how to strike a perfect developmental balance, but we do know this: we now live in the digital age. And, in spite of its virtues, it has diminished our capacity for responsive attunement to our children’s tireless energies and budding desires. Perhaps that is not all bad. Our children need both playful interaction and free, independent play. Ultimately, what is undeniable is that learning as well as bonding best occur when there is a significant component of play and reciprocal interaction.
C.S. Lewis's mother died when he was two years old, and his father wasn't one to play much. Meanwhile little Clive—known as "Jack" for the rest of his life after he began calling himself after his dog Jacksie, who was run over by one of the first cars in Northern Ireland, when he was four years old—created with magazine clip-outs and tape a world called "Animal-Land" in one room of the family home. Over the next few years, he and his brother wrote stories about a fictional world based on Animal-Land called "Boxen." And, as you may already know, he would later write seven more books influenced by those early worlds while a professor at Oxford University.
A few years ago, my daughters were restless, so I turned a couple of couches on their side and engineered a magnificent tent with an assortment of rods, a ladder, blankets, pillows, and a string of lights. That tent stayed up for weeks and prompted our own adventure into Narnia—we actually read a couple of Lewis's Chronicles inside of it. Very recently, we built another one together, and for weeks, they could be found reading in that playful nook.
Reading is critical in stoking the embers of the imagination. There is often no better educational tool than a good story. Yet let me be clear—we don’t teach our children how to play. Rather, as with Lewis himself, an innate curiosity and creativity drives their own wildly imaginative masquerades into make-believe. Such play not only deters future boredom and gloom, promoting resilience; it is also catalyzes developing competencies.
Today, increasingly, parenting goes the way of education, in that it feels increasingly standardized, micromanaged, pressured, busy, tedious. Why has the culture of parenting changed, or is it even fair to say that it has?
Many parents don't know how to play. Many of us live overly task-oriented lives. In our free time, we know how to scroll and click, the technological voyeurs we are. We live in a culture where every morsel of our time and energy is to be utilized. Positive feedback loops increase both our desire for and our response to the kind of external validation we can find through social media, and we increasingly run the risks of finding it there. We need more proximal relationships and more playful lives.
It is not my intention nor is it fair to trivialize any aspect of the parenting enterprise or to speak of it in broad strokes as I have here without acknowledging the very real and modern complexities of parenting. I do so acknowledge. That being said... You're an adult. Go play with a kid!
Getting outside for an hour or two disturbs the monotony of the mundane, the routine, and the digital. The outdoors have a way of cleansing thoughts and emotions, sometimes leading to unexpected conversation and connection. In the best of cases, spending quality time together leads to storytelling, laughter, and other forms of playfulness—relationship-building catalysts that spur not only a deeper sense of connection but also enrich development. And that goes for the adults as well, of course. As we lower our guards and heighten our senses, we all learn and grow.
Like breathing, eating, and sleeping, we all—especially our kids—have a built-in need to be playful. Life is a kind of playground. If a child isn’t good at playful interaction, he or she may be more likely to withdraw from social situations. Being good at playful interaction depends on continual modeling and practice. Play is critical for healthy development. There are no substitutes. Everything we do can be permeated with an attitude that is playful. Albert Einstein has been quoted as having once stated, “Play is the highest form of research.”
Playfulness also signals safety. Research psychologists from Texas Christian University instructed, “Shared silliness, laughter, and games all demonstrate to a child that you mean no harm (Purvis, Cross, & Sunshine, 2007)."
Playfulness can unlock and promote language-skill development, social skills, and even attachment security. Time dedicated to freewheeling, spontaneous play is eroding, and everything from sadness, worry, boredom, or worse flood in behind. You've seen this in action, right? If we’re being honest, don’t we see it in ourselves?
Many of our lives are too crowded for regular and unadulterated play. To the extent we live playless lives, human aptitudes such as spontaneity, creativity, and cooperation decline. It is our responsibility to catalyze for our children the kind of playfulness we all need in our lives, and let them guide the play whenever possible. By the end of the day, let's give our children the time, space, and resources they need to play well. Let's also be sure we have wasted some time being playful together.
Purvis K. B., Cross D. R., & Sunshine W. L. (2007). The connected child: Bring hope and healing to your adoptive family. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.