Do parents need to be taught how to play?

We should protect play, but let’s keep it fun

Last June, Toronto was the scene of Canada’s first-ever “Ultimate Block Party” (block meaning the kind you build with, not the kind you live on). It was modelled after an event that was held in New York’s Central Park a year ago by a group championing the importance of play in children’s lives.

Sounds like it was pretty cool: 20 different stations where kids and parents could do dramatic play, construction play, language play — you name it.

I’m glad that influential groups such as the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, which sponsored the Toronto event, are promoting play. I am a huge believer in the value of unstructured, child-controlled play. And I agree that it needs to be protected, what with electronic games, scheduled activities, tutoring for little kids and the like taking up increasing amounts of young children’s time.

However, there are troubling undercurrents in some of the “bring back play” dialogue that imply the “play famine” is somehow parents’ fault, that parents must be “taught” to let kids play and how to play with them. A Globe and Mail story publicizing the Ultimate Block Party, for example, referred to the Central Park event as a “remedial lesson in play” for parents and kids.

Is play now going to become yet another thing we have to get just right? I know that was not the intent behind the Ultimate Block Party. But parents are told ad infinitum about the crucial brain development that occurs in the early years and about the important learning that takes place during play (sometimes I get the impression that experts are almost afraid to say “play” without saying “learn” in the next breath). Add to this the idea that parents need to somehow “correct” their approach to play and you can bet some well-meaning fathers and mothers will feel pressure to steer their kids to the kinds of activities with the most obvious learning potential.

We’re told that children learn about physics when playing with balls, or how to suppress impulses when playing Simon Says. It’s true. But play is much broader than that. In essence, it is a child’s way of being. Play helps kids relieve stress; it allows children to try out different ways of thinking and behaving. Heck, play helps kids kill time. It also makes them feel good. (And I’m in favour of happy kids.)

Overplaying (pun intended) the “brain development/learning” card runs the risk of pushing adults toward trying to manage or control play. I never liked the kind of play adults thought was good for me — clapping games to help remember the names of birds or flowers, for example. I’d much rather have been mucking around at the creek, making forts or firing dirt clods out of my beloved air rifle. Free play is inherently spontaneous, unpredictable and, at times, seemingly pointless — something grown-ups should leave be as much as possible.

There is nothing wrong with trying to understand the connection between play and learning, mostly so we can counteract the stiffs who envision four-year-olds seated at desks with pencil and paper. And parents do have a role in play. We supervise it. We keep it safe. We supply (some of) the materials, we help our kids find things to do when they’re bored and, sometimes, we participate.

But let’s not take it too seriously. Because if it ain’t fun, it ain’t play.