What is play?

Italian educationist Maria Montessori (1870-1952)

This isn’t so much a post, as an invitation to debate…

Pre-amble: One of my close friends and influential thinkers in my life is a Montessorian, both teacher and parenting coach, and generally speaking, there are many aspects of the Montessori perspective on early childhood and early childhood education that speak to me. (And I’m completely enamoured of The Michael Olaf catalogue. I want it all, my thing against stuff, and buying stuff, notwithstanding).

Point: Here’s what throws me every time I dance with Maria Montessori, and that is her “observation-conclusion” that play is what children do when they have nothing better to do.

Counterpoint: Let’s start with Johann Huizinga, author of Homo Ludens–Playing Man, who argued quite passionately and to me convincingly that play is what makes us human, what created civilization…

My children play—I play—not when we have nothing better to do, but when we are free to do the thing we really, really want to do. (In my case, “play” equals—writing, reading, biking around in circles and day-dreaming. In their case, “play” equals… well, everything. From video games to art to building forts out of ice or toilet paper rolls.)

So a big question to the brilliant minds visiting here: what is play? How do you define play (and I suppose by opposition work?) in your life, in your family?

BTW, this is where the Montessorian in my life expounds on her stuff: Full Circle Parenting. It’s, ultimately, a very different approach to life, parenting (and education) than I’ve chosen to chart for my family in the specifics… but the underlying foundation of respect and focus on the bonds between members of the family is the same.

Photo: Maria Montessori (1870-1952) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

19 thoughts on “What is play?

  1. Honestly, having gone for a Master’s Degree in education and the push for our children to have school and learning thrown down their throats at a very young age so that they can excel at federal mandated tests, I think that play should just be play. I feel like our kids need to be kids a bit longer and not have someone also dictate how and why they should play, too. I hope that doesn’t sound rude or snarky, but just my humble opinion at this point after seeing all I have in the educational circles as of late. Thanks for the great debate this morning 🙂

  2. I went to a montessori-type school for just under a year while we were in “transit” before moving back to Asia when I was in 4th grade. I loved it. I’ve always enjoyed learning, and I liked that I could work ahead on the things I enjoyed. With that said, I have a friend who put her child into montessori, and she found her child got nothing out of it, and she would argue it’s a horrible set-up. My thought is that it depends on the kid – my friend’s child isn’t into school at all, while I was.

    But I think play is important, even for adults. Everyone needs to know what makes them tick, and they need to find the time to focus on whatever they are passionate about. It does wonders for the soul. For me, it’s writing. I enjoy doing it and I find it therapeutic.

    I have a friend who has her child enrolled in every extracurricular activity you can imagine and I personally don’t agree with what she’s doing. I think her child needs some downtime to do what SHE wants to do. She never has an opportunity to just sit and watch TV or, god forbid, feel bored. I personally think we need that downtime to figure out what we’re passionate about ON OUR OWN, rather than spending every waking moment doing what someone else dictates we should be doing.

    Awesome post, my friend. Thanks for the morning debate. 🙂

  3. Vivian Paley said, “Play is the universal learning medium.”

    Play is definitely not in opposition to work — I think of play as being the best part of work, when you’re in the flow and being creative, making new connections, etc.

    Play is *how* children learn. It is sad that anyone would think “it’s not really work if it’s fun,” but I heard that a *lot* when I owned a Reggio-inspired school. Parents wanted to see kids sitting down at a desk doing worksheets and getting used to toil. They had a hard time recognizing that what looks like play is often deeply challenging intellectual work.

  4. When we visited a Montessori preschool I was taken aback to be told that strict Montessori “doesn’t believe in pretend play.” (I was wondering where the pretend play area was.) “But,” the head teacher said, leaning in conspiratorially, “the state mandates we include it, so we tuck it into the after-care program.”

    I went home and did some research and found that Maria Montessori believed if children were given the opportunity for real work, they wouldn’t need to replace that with pretend play. So, for instance, if kids are *really* cooking, they don’t have a need to pretend to cook. I don’t agree with this–and truly, she is just one person with her ideas and observations born of a certain time and place. I truly actually cook with my kids, and they have always liked to pretend to cook, too. They aren’t filling a need that’s not being met; they’re filling an entirely different need, to expand upon their experiences and interpret them through play and to control them as well. Then there are their pretend expeditions to, say, Mt. Everest. I cannot fill that need through real life for my children. Thank goodness for their imaginations.

    I think part of the problem lies in definitions–and if you believe, as many do, that play is the work of childhood (and ought to be a goodly part of the work of adulthood, too), then a statement such as “children play when they have nothing better to do” ceases to make sense at all and thus can just be disregarded.

    • and how did you feel about traditional montessori’s approach to art, amy? ;o)

      the idea that once you’re really cooking you won’t need to pretend-cook reminds me of the wrong notion that you don’t need to read aloud to your children after they learn to read themselves. a child can slice vegetables and help make the bread for lunch and still like pretending to be a chef, or a parent, or a restaurant owner. i can’t imagine a childhood — or an early childhood program — without pretend play.

  5. I throw the gauntlet out to debate and then exit to demands of real life–some play included, but a little bit of toil–for the balance of the day. Keep talking, will you? These are already better and more insightful than my post…

  6. I really don’t know where I would be right now in my life if my childhood had not revolved around play. My imagination was my best friend as a child and could keep myself busy all of the time. This has come in extremely handy in every aspect of my adult life as well. I think I try to give my children a good balance as I know education is important but deep down I think their imagination can take them even further!

  7. My mother-in-law is the ultimate Montessorian. I’ve actually learned how to “play better” with my kids by watching her. She makes everything a game and at the end of the day, my kids know something new or have a new appreciation for what had been mundane. GREAT post and debate 🙂

  8. I think play is similar to “what one truly wants to do”. But even more than that, I think it lies in an attitude of wanting to do whatever one is doing.

    There are times in which my favorite thing to do, the thing I most want to do–write–feels nothing like play. That’s okay; I still want to do it. It just happens to be work sometimes.

    But if I’m having a good time digging a ditch for minimum wage, reveling in the little joys of it and finding the fun in various facets, then yeah, I’d say I was playing in the dirt. 🙂

  9. Great food for thought. I have so many thoughts! Can’t fit them all here.

    In general, I think that play is something you do on your own time for no other reason than that it gives you joy. You can love and be passionate about your work, but that’s not play, in my humble opinion.

    I agree with those who said that children need to play a bit on their own — be bored, be creative, pretend to cook, whatever. The oversubscription of this generation is going to lead to some serious therapy in the future!

    I also believe in open-ended play. A great new company that I reviewed on my blog is called “Play from Scratch” (www.playfromscratch.com) – they send you a bunch of boxes and tape, and you can make whatever you want. Far cry from all the bells and whistles of your typical plastic Fisher Price contraption….

    My husband went to Montessori and loved it, so we are looking into it. I don’t think you have to subscribe to EVERY thing Maria Montessori said to get a lot out of a Montessori program. And like anything else, how you supplement and reinforce at home is just as important as what they learn in school.

    Ok, I will stop now. Thanks for a great debate.

  10. My son attended a Montessori preschool. I absolutely loved it! I loved the “real” toys, the natural materials, the soothing environment. However, he’s a smart kid that doesn’t like to challenge himself for fear of failure. I found that when he was allowed to choose his own “work” he would repeat the easy tasks over and over again (tracing metal inserts). We moved him to a traditional school in K.

  11. What a thought-provoking post! We love many things about Montessori- both our kids have been to Montessori programs- and I have never felt that it “squelched” their interest/opportunity in play. I think we get caught up in semantics sometimes: to a toddler, find a job/play do not need to be polar opposites. I did love your quote about play being what we “really want to do.”

    • this is difficult, though, because montessori schools (at least in the u.s.) aren’t licensed in any way — so anyone can say they have a montessori program and they can adhere to the principals however they wish. i know some programs that incorporate more art, for example.

  12. Pingback: Gender-bender: is that a boy or a girl? | Nothing By The Book

  13. Great question. I see play as a way of knowing that is more about questions than answers. Play is a mental state in which playful actions are a consequence, not necessarily a targeted result, or even evidence, of play. Any program, Montessori or otherwise, can create environments in which play can occur, but clearly that doesn’t guarantee it will. Teachers’ intentionality within those environments, even during child-initiated or ‘free’ play, can help create opportunities for the doing of play to become the thinking of play, that scaffolding to the next set of questions. In our family, when things are going well, play is what guides us to what’s next. If that sounds a bit crazy or idealistic, thanks. Superb post, NBTB!

  14. So what you are saying is if I can find an opportunity for my child to be an ACTUAL zombie unicorn taming fairy butterfly king she wont need to pretend to be one anymore??? AWESOME! I love a good parenting challenge.

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