11 Jan 2010

On Play

A young Doctor Jemimah

A monster came into my family this Christmas. My parents became the proud, albeit rather bemused, owners of a Wii. My young nephews were overcome with joy, and quickly set about mastering the device. The drone of car racing became a constant backing soundtrack to every activity – even Christmas lunch – and the inevitable arguments soon arose over which two of the three small people would get to play with the two games consoles – and for how long. Jemimah stood wide-eyed. Video games are a new experience for her, and while she proved herself to be a natural at the Wii Sports bowling game, the interloper soon lost its appeal and she was ready for something else. She built a cubby, played with her dolls, read a book, and joined the adults at the jigsaw table. She’s like that. Being the only child at home, Jemimah is well able to occupy herself. The problem is that when there are other children around, she would rather play with them, and the two boys were occupied. They’d been occupied for hours – days even! Finally she could stand it no longer:

“I’ve had enough with those two!” she stormed into the kitchen a couple of days after the monster had arrived, eyes flashing, foot stamping, looking rather like a monster herself, “They’re so wrapped up in their imaginary games that they don’t know what’s real any more!”

Now I have nothing against the Wii per se. It is actually quite good fun in short bursts, but it is sad when children don’t know how to play, when they stand around bored whenever the television is turned off, wondering how to occupy themselves. My nephews are not the only ones either. Children nowadays have so little down time. There’s always homework or sport or music practice, or the glorified baby sitting service of after – school care. It’s no wonder that they’re so tired after all that that they spend the two or three hours a night in front of the box that the experts tell us they do. Compared to the telly, the Wii is practically good for them!! “At least they’re playing nicely together,” I heard one parent say in defence of the machine, when my father protested about the incessant noise.

All this happened only recently, and so today when I was sitting by the local swimming pool while Jemimah was playing after her swimming lesson, I was pleased to notice how well all the children were playing together. The pool was crowded – it’s hot outside – but all around I could see children, young and old, having good, old fashioned fun together. They were so creative too. One young boy had organised his older (purple haired!) brother to catch him as he jumped off the wall of the pool into the older boy’s outstretched arms. Big brother had promised not to let his face go under the water, and he did not let him down once during the 20 minutes that the game lasted. Jemimah and her two classmates were diving through each other’s legs in turn. Another group were playing ‘keepings off’ with a beach ball, while others tossed a tennis ball. Toddlers toddled everywhere and lay in the shallows under the watchful eye of mum or dad. There was a group of teenagers lolling against the walls preening and giving each other piggybacks.

Twice I saw children being organised by overenthusiastic parents who like to use every occasion as a ‘learning opportunity’. One father was determined that his four-year-old learn to put his face under water. “Here! This is how it’s done! Watch me, I’ll show you,” he said, while twisting up his face, blocking his nose with one hand and covering his eyes with the other, before quickly bobbing under the water. If he had known quite how comical he looked then perhaps he would have been less surprised at the tears of horror pouring down his son’s cheeks. He retired in frustration. I wonder if he realised how futile his efforts had been when he saw his son only minutes later diving under the water to catch a toy thrown by another – face and all – with laughter in his eyes instead of pain. Children don’t want – or need – to be taught all the time.

Another mother decided that her maybe ten-year-old son was there to practise his freestyle and nothing else. Well, you can imagine how that episode ended. Actually, maybe you can’t. I, for one, was embarrassed at the scene she made there in public for all the world to hear.

I couldn’t help thinking that these two parents would benefit from some education in Charlotte Mason’s theory of ‘Masterly Inactivity’, but leaving them aside, the children in the pool today were having fun. They were playing!

Water seems to be a great way of getting jaded modern couch potatoes to play. It seems to stimulate their dormant imaginations into life once more. If your kids are like my two nephews then perhaps a trip to the local pool might be worth a bash. Bush walks and picnics work pretty well too in my humble experience, as does the beach, especially ones with rock pools.

When local school kids come to visit our home, they seem to have great fun with the dress-up chest. There appears to be a fear of the great outdoors with many of them. They don’t know what to do out there, and none of the suggestions by Jemimah meets their approval. They seem to need some support from a grownup to find something they enjoy that doesn’t involve the box. How different from Jemimah’s CM educated friends they are! The dress-up box allows any number of games. Girls love to be princesses and fairies. The little boys sometimes like that too, but most of them like dressing in an old suit and tie. Briefcase in hand they’re set! Both sexes seem to enjoy getting married – to each other. ‘Doctor and Patient’ is a game that youngsters from every era seem to have played and today’s kids are no exception. Balloons work well too. It is amazing what children will do with balloons. Even the popped plastic (or is it rubber?) makes a great drum when stretched over a glass. Making biscuits is fun for bigger girls, and all kids love icing store bought ones.

Once they children are playing though, it is best for the parent to disappear. As in the pool, kids who are playing well do not need to be told what to do. As long as you’re close enough to referee the arguments then that is all you need to do. Miss Mason noticed this about play too:
There is a little danger in these days of much educational effort that children's play should be crowded out, or, what is from our present point of view the same thing, should be prescribed for and arranged until there is no more freedom of choice about play than that about work. We do not say a word against the educational value of games. We know that many things are learned in the playing-fields... but organised games are not play in the sense we have in view. Boys and girls must have time to invent episodes, carry on adventures, live heroic lives, lay sieges and carry forts, even if the fortress be an old armchair; and in these affairs the elders must neither meddle nor make. They must be content to know that they do not understand, and, what is more, that they carry with them a chill breath of reality which sweeps away illusions. Think what it must mean to a general in command of his forces to be told by some intruder into the play-world to tie his shoe-strings! There is an idea afloat that children require to be taught to play––to play at being little fishes and lambs and butterflies. No doubt they enjoy these games which are made for them, but there is a serious danger. In this matter the child who goes too much on crutches never learns to walk; he who is most played with by his elders has little power of inventing plays for himself; and so he misses that education
which comes to him when allowed to go his own way and act,

"As if his whole vocation
Were endless imitation."

Charlotte Mason, School Education, pp36,37
Kids love to play. They have amazing imaginations. They may have forgotten how to use them because of chronic underuse, but to play is natural. Just look at toddlers. Now they know how to play! To play is important. Playing allows creativity. Playing allows imagination. Playing allows exercise and reduces obesity (to jump on the bandwagon). Most of all, playing is fun, and surely, that is what childhood should be all about.


There are plenty of years to get serious when they’re grown.


  1. "Water seems to be a great way of getting jaded modern couch potatoes to play."

    I loved this sentence. We have a lake near our home that opens up into the ocean. It is very popular with local families and holiday makers - the current created by the tides creates some great fun. We were there last week, and I took some time to watch the adults. They were just as excited by the current as the children were, I have not seen such pure joy on an adults face in a long time.

  2. Check out Libby's blog & see the fun the girls had with a skim board at the beach. Yes, even Ditz. ☺

  3. I love this post! It's been interesting for us to be at our cabin all summer the past couple of years and see how schooled children play in comparison with ours. I think the difference is most obvious with the girls (that may be different if anyone had a game console in their cabin, though!). Some of them rarely even step out of the cabin to join the outdoor adventures of my kids, and then others have a really hard time including kids of all ages in their play.

    We always walk away thankful that we have been exposed to the ideas of Charlotte Mason, and homeschooling in general. And, we are always so thankful for our like-minded friends!

  4. I totally agree Jeanne.
    Lucy has been having so much fun over the last few days with just a bucket and spade, a foam board and the sand and sea - complete with rockpools of course.

  5. Too many kids today cannot entertain themselves at all. Boys, more than girls, seem to suffer from this. Most kids ARE afraid to be outside due to the fear-mongering about strangers, etc [real threat but take it easy on it!] Then there's the lawyering--if a kid gets hurt then it's someone else fault so we sue! I feel for kids today. It make the news when a Mom let her 10 year old WALK to soccer practice ALONE. Honestly! Sadly, this is the world they are stuck in.
    By the way, I just managed to resist [again] the Wii at Christmas! There are benefits to being single-income: I just say I "wish we could" but it's too expensive!!!!

  6. Wonderful post! I feel for children who have no down time. They go from school to activities to dinner to homework to bed. No wonder the mothers dread vacation. These children have never learned how to entertain themselves and are soon bored.

    Sounds like Jemimah and my children would have a lot of fun together.

  7. Loving your thoughts here Jeanne - and agreeing with your sentiment!

    No Wii here I'm glad to say. Instead it's bikes, and bats and balls, old sheets for tents, butterfly nets, inline skates, dominoes, jigsaws, board games and table tennis.

    We're also enjoying watching together the old 'Get Smart' series that my daughter got for her birthday recently. Lots of laughs! Oh, and last night 3 generations of our family sat down to watch 'The god's must be crazy'.....gotta tell you that when I read your post i imediately thought of the bush people and their coke bottle/evil thing!! ;)

    But heck, I'll enjoy a game or 2 on my brother's Wii over the hols! Just don't want one at our house!

  8. I agree with you Jeanne, and Mel I love what you have wrote too!

    Also I actually really enjoy the computer games and they can be alot of fun, so if we ever do get one I think there really needs to be a time limit on them!

    Joshua (9) said the other day "Mum I am alergic to too much TV, it makes me brain dead, it's better to be outside"! How many kids would you hear say that?

    Talk about a Charlotte Mason moment with developing good habits! xxx

  9. Sarah, Josh's quote is just priceless!!

  10. I agree children don't get outside enough these days. They're taught to sit in front of T.V because that's more convenient for the parents.....

    However in saying that, I also believe there's nothing wrong with games such as the Wii etc. in small doses. We have one and my kids (as well as us parents) have a great time playing it here and there.

    I believe the key is balance...

  11. Ah for that country childhood, eh? I wish my boys had a little more space to run free.
    They are very active and love to play. Dress ups are not so big for them unless it is some sort of camoflage! They do love their PS2 but we have strict time limits. They would love to have cool grandparents with a Wii. At present they visit big sister and play those interactive games on some occasions.
    Davys like to day with the cousins/friends at the pool are a big favourite for sure.
    I think our pre technology childhoods were much more stimualting. Look how clever we all turned out!

  12. I first noticed that kids were losing the ability to invent games for themselves about 15 years ago. They would come up to me (enduring my half hour of playground duty in the summer heat!) and beg me to "make us a game". Of course, I loved it, and gave myself the best roles, but maybe I should have encouraged them to make their own, and stood aloof and stern under a tree.

    One more thing I like about imaginative play with minimal adult supervision - it allows the development of self-regulation skills. Kids need to learn to control impulses, co-operate etc and play is great for this.

  13. Oh, how true this is!! Your words are so thought provoking. You also have such a natural way of explaning things! Thank you for sharing your insight!! Be Blessed, Angi in GA


I'd love you to leave me a message. Tell me what you like - and what you don't. Just remember that this is what we do in our family - it doesn't have to be what you do in yours...