“Happy hearts and happy faces,
Happy play in grassy places—
That was how, in ancient ages,
Children grew to kings and sages.”
Robert Louis Stevenson, A Child’s Garden of Verses
What sounds like a sweet childhood ditty in fact points to one of the most significant, and challenging, of issues today. How do our children play?
The play of children is a unique and wondrous thing. It is also powerfully determinative of who a child will become, and so it is worthy of more attention than we give it.
For children play is serious. Why should it not be? They intuitively know that life is serious; and play makes up a significant part of what they do in life. No wonder they take it seriously. We can too.
When a child has a friend over, the mind of each moves immediately to what to do together—normally some kind of play. Is it sports, some other competitive game, dolls or other figures, building something together, or some miscellaneous make-believe? Or is it something generated by the entertainment industry?
Children sense that they are not ready to do things in the ‘fully real’ way that adults do, but they want what they do to have meaning and import. And it does. What they do can be judged by standards analogous to those of all human actions: by the excellence of what is produced or enacted, as well as by the integrity with which it is enacted.
The latter has the greater importance in human action. In serious work, for instance, the character with which it is done is greater than what is produced. Play, be it of adult or child, likewise has a moral aspect. We adults do well to recall this, as regards our own play and especially theirs.
The ‘make-believe’ aspect of children’s play is significant. What are they are fore-seeing and even practicing when they play? Here a dual problem with video games and entertainment videos—which together now take up so much of children’s play time—comes to the fore. First, they remove and replace the child’s imagination with pre-determined images, effectively dulling and even handicapping one of the most primordial of human powers. Then, what they draw the child to enter into or to ‘make-believe’ is often not the ordinary good things of human life.
A central sickness of our age is the loss of the ordinary human things—such as honest good work, and rich leisure, in the home and broader community. Essential to this problem is that less and less do our children play at doing these ordinary human things. Good play grows the imagination, and it forms desires and expectations. As such, it is strongly determinative of the very habits most constitutive of who a person is. The wise have always seen this.
Play might seem to be ‘just play’ to adults. In reality, it is a key context for children to discover and to form their humanity.
Happy play in grassy places—this can take different forms. But if it is going to happen, today more than ever the children cannot do it alone. It will require our consistent foresight, cultivation, and personal involvement.
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Thank you for this, Dr Cuddeback. So important. As a grandmother I can sure see the difference, even now, between my own kids and the next generation. My 4 older grands are all in college now. iPhones in their early teens. My youngest, age 9, is “married” to internet games! The older ones at least had a few important years before that aspect took over. My son, who’s now 47, was given a “game boy “ at around 14 or 15, but we did limit his time on it.
Virginia, We’re all in this together. In any case, each time we can make some richer activity happen it is worthwhile, even if we can’t change the general practices!
Thank you for bringing this to the forefront: child’s play. And that child’s play, is much more than just child’s play. On our long list of very high priorities, may this move up that list for parents, and for extended family, and family friends, and all those who care about children, and humanity! May God bless us all in these very stormy seas, as we continually strain to keep THE guiding light, Our Lord Jesus the Christ, in our sight.
Thank you Audrey. I join my prayer to yours.
We built a sandbox for our grandchildren. Watching each one from a distance, we can see their imaginations come to life.
Solitary play in a shady sandbox is a magical thing.
I remember as a very young homeschooling mom, wanting to make sure our home “looked” like the brick and mortar school I was used to. A wiser more seasoned mom was helping me with my lack of “productivity” one day when she said she Usually never interrupts a good play…she would sometimes even let chores slide just to allow that freedom if the kids were really into it. Children seem to enter into their own time zones in a good play because they can go on for what feels like hours, they lose track and fully enter into it.
All this and the memory of having once been impressed upon with the inspiration of Karol Wojtyla spending his heaven laughing with glee all the way down a slide made of clouds with eternal child-like joy.
It is perhaps more apt to say that children are playing to prepare for heaven more than any of our best laid schemes o mice an men.
And aren’t they to be commended for it! H/T Chesterton’s Manalive!
Late in commenting here… But Daniel, your comments remind me of something I once remarked to a fellow parent as we watched a group of children playing in the rectory yard after Mass. I said that seeing the children play seemed a foretaste of heaven. They all seemed so content playing at their games of “Dead Minnows” and other such group games the children devise.
Also, an image that will forever remain seared in my memory: one of my sons at 8, galloping around our backyard on his stick-horse, brandishing a wooden sword. He just looked so spirited and free, and I had to wonder what imaginary dragons or other things he was swinging at with his sword. It is a wonder to see a child at play.
“Stickville” is my children’s imaginary world (they are 11, 9 and 6). Mr. And Mrs. Rosepod and their children are its inhabitants. It is nestled between the hebes and heather. They memorize poetry. “All the names I know from nurse, bachelor’s buttons shepherd’s purse…” RL Stevenson
We homeschool using a wonderful book “Teaching the Trivium” as our guide. Charlotte Mason’s books are also wonderful (read her original writing). If you want to rebuild our culture, get your kids outside and homeschool!
May your children flourish with their ‘friends’ the Rosepods. Many blessings to you.