I wrote the following article for the South African Institution of Civil Engineering’s (SAICE) magazine and it was published in June 2019. In the opinion piece we explore why it is so important to value the traditional trajectory of development and let little ones play with the physical world before exploring the virtual one, if we hope to develop technicians and engineers of the future. It was so wonderful to be given the opportunity to share the value of play beyond the fields of health and education.
Click on the link to read (pdf). Toddlers in Training – SAICE June 2019
As mentioned in our last post, I’ve recently finished reading the most wonderful ebook by a lady who has pioneered and led the field of playworkers – a field that I think holds such value. In her book The Playwork Primer (2010), Penny Wilson shares the delicate tiptoe between facilitating play on the playgrounds of London, and interfering in the developmental process that is the child’s work.
Today I would like to share her explanation of the critical balance in the child’s play process. Many occupational therapists need to understand and use this concept for the beautiful art of therapy to be successful.
Below is an excerpt from the book.
Complexity theory is a way of understanding natural systems. We look at a flock of birds or a school of fish moving in magnificent order and symmetry and wonder how they can do it. Both are examples of complex adaptive systems. In these natural systems, order is not the result of a pre-established plan that maps out, say, the flock’s flight path. Instead, the overall order, the graceful flocking, emerges from a few very simple rules about finding direction, keeping a certain distance from other birds, and so on, that govern individual birds’ flying behaviours.
The theories of complexity provide some interesting metaphors for understanding playwork. Arthur Battram describes an ideal state for a play setting by likening it to a wave. Before the wave breaks, there is stasis, order. After the wave breaks, there is turbulence and chaos. At the curl of the breaking wave there is a delicate balance between order and chaos.
If we relate this to a play setting then the static, ordered state is a very controlled setting. It is rule-bound, highly organised, and prescriptive; timed activities will take place. There is no room in this play setting for the creative spontaneity of playing children. If we look at a chaotic play setting, it is poorly organised. The hours when it is open are irregular. The toilets might not work. The staff might display a wide variety of moods and temperaments, with unpredictable attitudes towards the children and their playing.
Look at the curl of the wave, which is where we surf because that is where the power is. We see the meeting of order with spontaneous activity and unpredictability. Thus, an underlying order can support freedom and unpredictable play. It is a framework for creativity. Battram offers us the image of surfing on the edge of chaos and order as a metaphor for how a play setting works. It is our role as adults to understand this and create the solid foundations on which the children play.
Isn’t that just beautiful?
I must admit that I am person who likes order and it is hard for me as parent and homemaker to be playmaker too, to stand back and watch the beautiful chaos unfold.
What are your experiences of beautiful chaos? Aren’t they some of your best memories?
It was without any planning that our most recent trip to the library resulted in reading bedtime stories that assume the wonderful imaginations of our children are based more in reality that those of their parents. My eldest is definitely at the age where he is constantly at war within himself, trying to figure out what is real, what is play-play and what is in his best interests to believe in (i.e. Father Christmas and the Tooth Mouse).
We came home with two wonderful books:
- “I want my light on!” by Tony Ross
- “There’s no such thing as a dragon” by Jack Kent
I want my light on! is the story of a little princess who doesn’t want to go to bed, because she believes there are ghosts in her room, despite all the palace staff trying to convince her otherwise. In a lovely twist, the book ends with the little ghost convincing his mom that little girls are real.
There’s no such thing as a dragon is of a similar theme, although perhaps with a slightly more poignant theme for us to take note of. The little boy’s dragon grows bigger and bigger, eventually carrying the family’s house away on his back, just so that he will get noticed, taken seriously, and that the parents will believe he is real.
These books highlight the role of imagination in early development, specifically in toddlers and preschool children. Reading plays a vital role in the development of imaginative narrative, that the children then play out in their play routines. While dragons, fairies, ghosts and the like show evidence of the child’s community’s beliefs, they also play a significant part in shaping the child’s world view.
What should imaginative play look like?
Between 18 and 24 months toddlers will start to play their first pretend games, acting out things that they see the adults in their lives do. This may include talking on the phone, cooking, driving a car.
By two years, they understand that an object could stand for something else e.g. this spoon could be my “phone”. They also like to pretend e.g. that they’re eating. I couldn’t believe it when my husband taught my toddler to fake sleep, eyes closed and snoring and all! It was definitely his first demonstration of understanding “play-play”.
As the child nears their third birthday they will really enter the world of imaginary play. You can look forward to more complicated scenes: boats and railways, tea parties, fight scenes and careers start to emerge. By age four they’ve moved from action and sound effects to complicated story lines and character traits.
So how can you as a parent foster this vital form of play in your child?
- Read read read! Books are a wonderful way to develop imaginative skills, abstract thinking and an understanding of story lines.
- Provide your child with props for their play time. These need not resemble anything in particular. Old curtain rings, wooden blocks and pieces of material can be used to create all sorts of scenes.
- Keep some old clothes for dress up and role play. These could be specific outfits from a school dress up day such as a doctor or princess, or a collection of hats, jewellery and shoes that they can use as their hearts desire.
- Get on the floor and play! There’s a fine line between teaching your children to play on their own, and promoting their play by acting as their play partner. If your child invites you into their story, by all means play along. Ask questions: What happened next? Who is this? Who am I?
Imaginative play is such a wonderful phase of development. Your child will develop their cognitive and social skills, as well as test out their own theories of how the world works. It is their safe space to explore interactions, sequences and consequences.
The information provided in this article is intended to foster a playful spirit in homes and to provide parents with ideas. This blog cannot replace a consultation with a health professional. If you have any concerns about your child’s development please seek individualized advice.