As adults we often think of ‘play’ as only having fun, escaping the responsibilities and activities of everyday life. But if we think of play like this, we miss how important it is in our children’s lives. Our children do not play to avoid the realities of life, rather they play at the realities of life. Of course, play for children can be fun, but it is also serious and important work, necessary for their development.
A child’s impulse to play comes from a natural desire to understand the world. Through play children learn how to make sense of their world and begin to learn how they fit into it. Play provides children an outlet for this curiosity and a way to safely experiment and incorporate new ideas without fear of failure.
We witness this all the time at Itty Bitty City. What happens when I make the water flow this way or how can I make a fountain with these pipes at the water table? What happens at the train table when I switch the train cars’ magnets around? Does that happen every time? How can I balance these big blue blocks and make my building stand tall?
Play encourages our children to ask these questions, and through trial and error (and a lot of fun), they learn about water flow, magnets, and the laws of force, motion, and gravity − how the natural world works. Experiencing with how nature works in a safe environment, like at Itty Bitty City, not only keeps them physically safe, but also provides them with emotional security, ensuring they are free to investigate wherever their curiosity takes them.
Play is also important because it is real yet not real. Peter Gray, a renowned psychologist on play, puts it this way: “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.” A secure environment to play allows our children to create make-believe worlds to experiment with and live out the realities of life.
This not only applies to learning about the laws of nature but also to social development. While playing in Itty Bitty City’s village, children decide for themselves what jobs they will have, and must figure out how to navigate their fantasy play together. Play is teaching our children how to think of others’ needs, how to follow the rules, and how to fit what they want to be into their world.
Since it is play, if someone doesn’t think of others or doesn’t follow the rules, the game is over − the other children can just quit. So, for the play to go on, everyone must navigate how to play together and balance their needs with the needs of the group. Play, especially in a secure environment like at Itty Bitty City, provides our children the opportunity to act out who they want to be and to try out new ways to think about and do things – in short, making sense of their world.