Play is serious business. We learn through play. Fred Rogers once said, “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” When my children were little, long imaginary games would infuse our house. Our living room would become an adventure land and blankets, blocks, pots and pans as other household paraphernalia would find a home in the living room as Rachel and Ben built a fantasy land. A highlight of our Christmases would be a musical play created and performed by two young children, worked on for days with my oldest directing and starring and my youngest throwing his thoughts into the creative process and often doing what he was told to do. Through this unstructured time of play, bonds of two siblings were deepened. These unstructured moments of their childhood were paramount in the development of their thinking and their creative process.
One summer, the theme was how to be a spy. Rachel and Ben seeped themselves in detective stories and grew their imagination around the art of spying. They took walks through our neighborhood, taking notes about theories of how to spy. They created spy equipment in our basement including homemade spyglasses and invisible ink. One uneventful afternoon during that summer I loaded both kids into the car to run errands. Driving down a street, I missed a stop light, and the flashing lights behind me told me so. I pulled over and assured both kids that things were fine. The policeman came to my window which I had opened and began to speak. “Do you know what…” His speech was interrupted by my seven year old son squealing in the back seat, “You’re a real spy guy! You have the belt! You have a spy guy belt! Can I see your spy guy belt, Mr. Spy Guy?” The police officer stops in his tracks and we both burst into laughter. “This has been the summer about reading about spies,” I tell him. He shakes his head and says to me, “Ma’am, please don’t run through anymore stop signs. We want our future spies to be safe.” He then showed Ben a couple of things on his belt and told him that he wasn’t a spy but a police officer. Ben and Rachel went home and spent days constructing their own spy belts. Play and imagination is important. It is serious business. In this case, it saved mom a ticket. And in all cases, it provides the fodder for creativity and critical thinking.
Finding one’s writer’s voice through playfulness is a natural process. Playfulness allows connection and through connection voice happens. In the case of my kids, stories were written, lists were made, plays were created and imagination was unleashed. In an earlier part of my career, when I first explored writers’ workshop with my students, I had the good fortune to teach Carl. The gift I remember about Carl is his gift for play. He would lose himself in his play at recess and in the classroom. I often thought that year that no one could play quite like Carl. He was a reluctant reader and writer, but, boy, could he play. My work, as is the work of all writing teachers, was to tap into his gifts and his interests to help him find a place and a voice in his writing. The pathway for his voice in writing was in recognition of his gifts and interests—one of which was play. Playfulness was the pathway to his written words.
Play is a serious business. In an era of high stakes testing and implementation of curriculum that is taking out play kitchens and play centers in even the kindergarten classes in the name of rigor and higher standards, waving the standard bearer for play is essential—the most serious of business. In an era of busyness, when families are hurried and the structure of children’s lives around organized sports and activities lead to no time for unstructured play, waving the standard-bearer for play is essential—the most serious of business. Children learn through play. It develops understandings of friendship and community. And it provides the fodder of creativity and critical thinking. Play is the work of childhood. And….it is just plain fun.