“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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