Go Play

By Nancy Blanning


We did not know that we were creating; we were just doing.

Materials were simple and the activity was satisfying.

It is said that play is a child’s work.

It is important for us to observe and respect children’s play process.




My memories from childhood often recall my mother saying “Go play.” To us that usually meant to go outside, find a neighborhood child or two, and figure out what to do. There were a few essential toys: a doll or two, a truck, a bicycle, roller skates (the metal kind that clamped onto the toe of our substantial Buster Brown shoes); and Mother’s high heels or Father’s heavy leather shoes for clumpy-walking dress-up. There was a hand spade for digging in the garden and a beloved egg beater to crank around in soapy water and build up mountains of suds (well, maybe what looked like mountains to us children). Also on hand were a few worn-out bed sheets and an old blanket for building forts by draping these over some discarded two-by-fours that lay alongside the wall of the garage. If the weather was too cold or wet, the building went on inside with sofa cushions and dining room chairs as our construction essentials. By today’s standard, this does not seem like much. But this was no deprivation or poverty. These items kept us endlessly busy figuring out different ways to use them. We did not know that we were creating; we were just doing. Materials were simple and the activity was satisfying. And all the while we children were playing, our parents were doing the necessary work of each day.

Fast-forwarding to today, we see many shifts in practice and attitude. Play opportunities for children are usually more structured with concerns about safety in our increasingly uncertain and unpredictable world. So we have playdates replacing the more open-ended, free-range “go play” of former times. Finding your own “what to do” is being replaced by toys that entertain, dazzle, or instruct. These toys are often limited in what kind of play they suggest to the child. With narrowed versatility, these toys offer short satisfaction to the child and are soon abandoned.

The lives of parents have also changed. Working parents have limited waking hours’ contact time with their children. They want “quality” interaction with their offspring when possible. Parents who do not work outside the home often have more open time in the day because conveniences have lightened our household workload. These parents are searching for activities to fill the day. So more and more parents are playing with their children. This can involve getting down on the floor and playing with the child’s toys as though the adult were a child. It can also mean following along behind the child to make sure he or she stays entertained and is constantly reassured of the adult’s attention and presence.

To interact playfully with our children is essential. Dressing and cradling a baby doll, having a pretend tea party, building a castle in the sandbox, racing trucks across the floor, running, dancing, tickling, and wrestling are wonderful and enjoyable as short interludes. But for the adult to become the child’s playmate as a long-term activity can be a kind of slavery for the adult and a handicapping limitation for the child. Why? Isn’t it rejecting and neglectful not to respond to the child’s request, “Play with me”?

What is play? The answer is different for the adult and for the child. One dictionary definition states that play is recreation. Adults conceive of recreation as something that gives relief from the effort and stresses of work. We often think of sports and athletics as recreational activity; media entertainment also fills a lot of down time. Through playful activities we refresh our vital energies. Adult play can help us relax our attention and escape from the responsibilities of life for a little while.

For children, the process is reversed. The children’s task is to find their way into life, not escape from it. Play for them is an act of creation. Children take the experiences and impressions of the world and re-create them in a form they can manipulate and direct. Through this process, these young ones can imaginatively explore the world and make sense out of it in a way that suits their level of consciousness. It is said that play is a child’s work. When viewed as creative activity, we can see that play is serious business. In play children focus intensely, concentrating on re-creating what they have witnessed in the world, digesting the experience so it becomes their own in their emerging world construct.

It is important for us to observe and respect children’s play process. We can protect the space in which they can unfold this unique capacity of early childhood, which we adults have become distanced from. We can give models of purposeful human activity for children to imitate and explore. But when we become playmates, we are trying to imitate being a child (which we are not), and actually get in their way. They do not need us as playmates. They need us as guides into human life. When the environment is right (not narrowed by pre-scripted toys or adult fearfulness), and we say “go play,” we are releasing them to one of the most important creative activities for the young child’s present and future.