I have been devouring literature on play and everything related to it for maybe a year now. I am blessed with very bright children, so teaching them things has never been an enormous challenge. But despite reading and wanting to try out every new technique on child play, according to each one’s developmental stage, I found this to be extremely difficult. It frustrated me to no end, this is PLAY! It should be fun, easy, natural. Kids should just want to jump in and be silly with me at the drop of a hat! So why aren’t they? Of course they do come to me at least once a day, requesting that I join them in whatever game they are playing, usually one at a time, to get their alone time with me, but if I break out in song, start dancing or take out some toys and ask them to join, they’ll look at me with bewilderment and wonder if I have temporarily loosened a few screws. Crafting is something else entirely, it’s like teaching, they sit (most of the time), I explain what they need to do, one step at a time, showing them an example and trying to make connections with useful knowledge they might have or want to have and help them if I see them struggling or lagging behind. Play is a beast all its own. It has nothing to do with academic learning, sure I can explain to them scientific or mathematical notions as they try things out and observe various phenomena, but they are usually dismissive of these little tid bits, as though I had just muttered something completely irrelevant to the task at hand. Occasionally, they will notice something odd and excitedly tell me about it, like when the colors mix and make completely new ones, or when a piece a play dough makes a movement resembling a bent arm despite the fact that nobody is moving that part, but only one extremity. Or they might come to me in frustration because the rounded block won’t stay vertical despite their repeated efforts to keep it that way. But these are all instances in which the kids were exploring different ways to use the tools provided (be it toys, blocks, dough, sand, kitchen utensils or whatever may be the case) and sharing a particular instant with me, to smile with them (because happiness is not real unless it is shared, and nobody knows it better than a child) or to comfort them and let them know they aren’t making a mistake, that’s just the way things work. It has nothing to do with me participating actively throughout their game, actually, quite the contrary.
Well, while reading about play I realized that it wasn’t that my kids didn’t find my games amusing (in fact they sometimes giggle when I let lose), nor is it that I forgot how to play (although I might have forgotten a lot more than I can remember). But it’s simply that they can fully experience play when they are completely immersed in it themselves. Play isn’t something we can give them on a platter, like fast food, here, take it, enjoy! It’s a process and they go about it at their own pace, with whom they chose, when they chose and the least amount of parental involvement, the better. This doesn’t mean that we let them go lose and try out everything completely unsupervised, especially not the younger ones, who absolutely need a close watch, but it means that we can’t come up with toys and expect them to be as excited as us and become enthralled in a game of our own invention and under our own structured methodology. In a way, it would be like asking an explorer to stick to the paved road, or a scientist to only follow what his predecessors have discovered and proven. What’s the point?
In the last few weeks I’ve taken a few hours off of my sleep to be able to finish reading the Dostoyewsky short stories I very boldly began to tackle during one quiet afternoon of Freeplay. The kids were safely exploring in one of the rooms, I could see them from my position in the living room, and I curled up to attempt to finish one of the author’s highly acclaimed works of fiction. Of course it was a tall order of business and I only managed to finish a quarter of a story on that session, but I did finish the book eventually and the final sentences in it were these: “”Awareness of life is of a higher order than knowledge of the laws of happiness.” That’s an adage that we must fight. And I shall fight it. And if everyone wanted it, everything could be arranged immediately.” This was in reference to a dream the narrator had had, in which he had encountered a utopia, where people were happy and living in complete harmony with themselves, others and the entirety of their environment, including plants and animals because they had sure knowledge of a Higher Existence and they always acted for the benefit of everyone, and not just themselves. Of course the narrator, his interlocutors, the author and the critic presenting the work all had reservations about the applicability of such an ideal, reservations exemplified in the fact that this utopia was easily tilted into oblivion by one bad influence. Nevertheless the ideal persists not because it is eternal, but because it is feasible, attainable, though fleeting and “could be arranged immediately.” Obviously this, just like the author’s previous fixation with socialist ideals is fully theoretical, and just as he found out through his own very personal experience how these ideals were detached from reality, one can easily give examples of how his new found ideal could be turned inside out and tossed simply by the implication that general sure Knowledge of a Higher Existence is something that comes from within and cannot be enforced, despite repeated efforts to this effect by various cultures at different times in History, including very recently.
What I drew from it, which is not only applicable to children’s play but also to our very own present struggles in a nation in its infancy, is that we put way too much emphasis on collecting data, spreading information and using this information to add credibility or to discredit something or other, testing each other’s abilities (including pre-schoolers) to absorb as much data as possible and reproduce it verbatim at the drop of a hat, thus building fickle towers that for the sake of continuity I’ll call “awareness of life” rather than using our talents and self discipline to help others do their job, being able to take one’s own urge to act and do and say and simply be there to support whoever is in the process of acting, doing or saying, or in fact PLAYING; lending a hand when needed and overcoming our need to prove to the world that we too can perform. It isn’t always about us WITH them, or us AND them, or us VERSUS them, but sometimes it’s just about us ALONG with them, being there for them without interfering and helping to the best of our abilities when and as needed. By taking baby steps in this direction, be it by observing our kids play instead of intervening at every turn, or by listening to what the problems are and trying to find a way in which we can help those in charge solve them rather than disrupting each failed attempt they make at solving them in their desperation to finish their mandate before being ousted, we might catch a glimpse of what Dostoyewsky’s utopia looked like, likely not permanently, but like play, it is a process and baby steps in the pursuit of “Knowledge of the laws of happiness” may just lead us in the right direction, raising happy children who may not know their ABCs by age 4, but are fully capable of recognizing a happy moment when they feel it and maybe finding some happy stability where it is badly needed.