Learning How to Play?

Spring has truly sprung in Perth!

The days are more regularly blue and sunny, warm enough to wear a t-shirt in the daytime. The birds are singing, the magpies swooping and the butterflies copulating on my tomato plants (though, they are probably not butterflies but cabbage moths who are planning to lay hideous amounts of eggs which will sprout forth hundreds of tiny, green, wriggling caterpillars to wreak havoc on my struggling-to-survive vegetables).

At the moment, I sit outside and type on the laptop as Immy cooks dinner for her dolly and me in the sandpit. I wonder how many sand cakes have been presented to siblings, parents, friends? How many times, “Happy Birthday to You,” has been sung as twig candles are blown out? The simplicity of a young child at play. Playing the same game that I did as a child. The simple cooking in the sand play of generations.

I was recently reading a post at Playborhood.com entitled, ‘Should Adults Help Kids Play?’ I was particularly interested in the following snippets;

When I was a kid, we didn’t need any adults around to play. In fact, if any adults showed up, our play slowed down. We became self-conscious, wondering if we would get yelled at for things like making too much physical contact or almost breaking a window. Adults inhibited our play, rather than encouraging it.”

“Well, the fact is that very, very few children play freely these days. On the rare occasions when children find themselves outside with some time and nothing to do, most of them seem lost, out of place. Sadly, most children in America and other Western countries don’t know how to play. Strange as it may seem, the ability to play freely for hours is a skill that needs to be learned.

So, if play is a skill, not an instinct as many of us have always had believed, how did earlier generations of kids learn it with no adults around? Children back then were raised in neighborhoods that had a culture of large group play that was passed down from older children to younger children. Older kids would take leadership roles because they knew the rules of games and could articulate them. They were more emotionally mature, so they came to command respect for adjudicating disputes and making decisions about what we would play, where, and with whom. Finally, well, they were physically bigger and stronger, and would use intimidation to enforce their will if they had to.

The older kids weren’t particularly fond of younger kids, but they needed them to fill out their large group activities like team sports games (e.g. baseball, football, basketball, and soccer), chase games (capture the flag, hide and go seek, and tag), fort building, and fantasy play (house, doctor, etc.).

Large group play was inherently mixed age because of the need for large numbers of children. When the oldest kids got too old for these large group activities, usually around the puberty years, younger tweens who were next in line would rise to leadership roles. In this way, a neighborhood’s culture of play was passed on from generation to generation of kids.

Most neighborhoods today have no culture of children’s play. They are wastelands. There are virtually no kids playing at all. When kids do play in neighborhoods, they play in small numbers, usually two (i.e. one-on-one play).”

This reminded me of play in my neighbourhood when I was growing up – riding our bikes around the cul de sac with the children from houses up and down the street, holiday adventures with cousins and other vacationing children, both older and younger, with more freedom to roam. It is true, we learnt to play from those we played with, the gangs of children who gathered to share fun and adventures.

We are fortunate to have a ‘gang’ that Immy gets to play with, though not often as we all lead busy lives and live at opposite ends of the Perth metro area. We also attend a playgroup where the children range in age from 1-4 years of age. This is the closest we currently come to this idea of large, multi-aged group play. I have however set myself the challenge of being mindful of the need for Immy to enjoy…

groups of children to play with,

time to play,

space to play and explore…

safely, of course!

What are your thoughts about children learning to play? Does it happen in groups or can an individual child learn to play without the intervention of other children or adults?

How do your children play? Do they have the opportunity to play freely with other children in groups of more than two? Of different ages? Do your children have a ‘neighborhood’ to play in?


  1. Interesting!

    My daughters (6 and 4) have two or three separate "gangs". Their cousins (two boys aged 7 and 5) live a few blocks away and they play together at least twice a week. They also have two sets of friends from large families (4 or more kids) where one child is in 6-year-old's class at school and another is in 4-year-old's class at kinder. We are very friendly with both these families and the kids all play together, with minimal adult intervention, at least weekly.

    I think they really benefit from their "gangs" and it helps their social and play skills immensely. I have noticed a definite increase in social maturity from my 6-year-old since she's been spending time hanging around with her schoolfriend's 10-year-old sister, who is a lovely girl and very definitely the "play marshall" of that particular gang of 6 (my two girls + 4 kids in that family).

  2. katepickle says:

    Now that is n interesting question!

    I think that all children have an innate ability to play. Even single children know how to play. Sure their play may be different to those kids exposed to bigger, varied age groups of kis, but does that matter? Do we value that large multi=aged grup play scenario and ideas over a child playing alone?

    Who they are, where and how they live all affects how a child plays… but it is interesting to think abut what we value within that frame work issn't it

  3. Mike Lanza says:

    Thanks for engaging your readers regarding my Playborhood.com post.

    I do want to clarify one thing. Certainly, all children have some sort of "play instinct" that leads them to do things like splash water around or chase each other. I never meant to imply otherwise. However, the cultural rituals that surround more complex types of play must somehow be learned.

    I'll give an example. Imagine that you get a group of 10 or so 10-year-old boys together on a field with an American football or a rugby ball. Today, chances are quite low that these boys would know how to pull together a game of American football or rugby. This involves choosing which kids are on which team ("choosing sides"), finding things to define field boundaries, and establishing some rules that account for the particular conditions. For instance 5 on 5 is a smaller group than a "regulation" American football game has, so certain rules about who is allowed to do what must be improvised.

    Now, if this example occurred to boys 30 or more years ago, I guarantee they'd pull together a game. They'd know how to do all those things I mention above. My live as a kid was pulling together these "pickup games" practically every day.

  4. I have two daughters (7 and 1) and I lament the fact that they don't have a regular 'gang' of kids to play with. There are many reasons why: they can't roam alone, a child predator might get them. they can't play with kids too much older and learn something innappropriate (gasp!) there are too many cars, there is the potential for danger, broken bones, there are too many fences and too many child snatchers, absentee, working or otherwise irresponsible parents or too few or too many "eyes on the street." or the oft heard " what kind of parent lets their kid [fill in the blank!!!]…the list seems endless these days.

    I live in the suburbs and I can tell you that it often feels like a cultural and social void. Not only can it feel incredible lonetly for adults (everybody being soooo busy all the time), it can be incredibly lonely for children. I've largely given up on playdates because they have to be scheduled weeks in advance, and when kids do get together, there are always adults hovering, worrying, don'ting and shouldn'ting…especially indoors where we have to protect all our 'stuff.'

    I grew up in the poorest, shoddiest apartment complex where there were always children, young and old, to play and learn new games from, most often unsupervised. I sometimes wonder if "leaving" was worth it when my and my daughter's loneliness sets in…..

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