Not Your Typical Article on Childhood Play

Katy BurkeUncategorized

Katys barbie pool from when she was a girl, 1988

Share this Post

About a month ago, I was washing my hands and the smell of the soap brought me back thirty years.  I couldn’t quite pinpoint the scent, but it was a toy, something Barbie, perhaps. Peaches-n-Cream Barbie? Barbie’s camper? Her pool? Regardless, I was, suddenly, blissfully, happy. Giddy even. There is something special and enduring about childhood play, as if we were in our purest form at the time, our most true selves—without concern, doing what we most enjoy.

“Play” is starting to get more, well, play, in the education world. Though in recent years recess and downtime have become increasingly undervalued in public schools, the alternative school movement is taking great care to give play its due notice. In his book, Free to Learn, Peter Gray writes: “Perhaps play would be more respected if we called it something like ‘self-motivated practice of life skills,’ but that would remove the lightheartedness from it and thereby reduce its effectiveness. So we are stuck with the paradox. We must accept play’s triviality in order to realize its profundity.”1  He’s right. Play is a profound feature of life. When we speak of how children play, we usually speak in generalities: cooperative play, parallel play, pretend play, object play. We talk about what is developmentally appropriate.  We value play for the experiential learning…learning about the external world and how to interact with others. This is true and noteworthy, but I wonder about the value of play as a form of self expression and self-discovery. I wonder about specific play and who we are. I wonder why sniffing some mystery Mattel plastic made me euphoric.

I’m curious to know why we play what we play. So, I went on a little investigation. I looked into the childhoods of renowned figures and interviewed everyday people in my life. There were a few key reasons to explain why we play, what we play. The first is simple—we play where the people are. Sure, there’s solitary play, but isn’t play more fun with others? So perhaps, what we played in a given moment was less important than having someone with whom to play. Joel, for example, loved team sports. When asked what particular sports, it didn’t seem to matter too much; he wanted in on the game that everybody was playing. Now, he enjoys the “teamwork” aspect of his work, enough to miss it when away from the job. As social creatures, I think many of us are like that. We end up interested in the stuff others like too. But the converse is true also, those children who were alone were driven to particular games due to their isolation. Ned was a beloved only child, but he wanted social play. He fondly remembers “going to war” with little rubber soldiers, flicking and “shooting” them down. He was a character among them. It was a game that allowed for theatrical social interaction, and he continued to enjoy theater into adulthood. Alfred was a neglected, mistreated and overweight child without playmates. Since he couldn’t play games with others, he would invent them. He also liked to draw elaborate maps. Rather than being a player, he was the mind behind the schemes. He grew up to be another sort of mastermind, a director of some of the best known American films in the 20th century: Psycho, The Birds, Rear Window, among others.

We also choose what we play out of sheer opportunity. For example, we might prefer playing in water because our parents owned a pool or lived near the shore.  Jane was given a stuffed gorilla as an infant, a gift considered too frightening for a child, but nevertheless she became very attached to it. As she grew, her interests did too. Her family happened to own a henhouse, where she was discovered hiding for hours, watching, waiting, for a hen to lay an egg. As an adult, she came back around to her love for gorillas and spent her life among them, patiently observing their behavior, making great discoveries. Her opportunities as a child fed her adult passion. Sometimes though, it’s the other way around. Mike Rowe, trade activist, advises rather than following your passion, to follow opportunity and bring your passion.  Eileen, who loved imagination games and pretend play, infuses her childhood perspective into the history classes she teaches by helping her students imagine what life was like for historical figures.  Alison loved animals as a child—catching turtles and fish, caring for horses and other barn animals. Now, at Princeton Learning Cooperative, she teaches a nature class in which she leads teens on trails observing traces of animals—footprints, acorn piles, bones, etc.  Opportunity seems to play a big role in life’s pleasures whether in childhood or adulthood.

What most fascinates me, however, is what we choose to play when playmates and opportunity have little influence. Play then becomes a form of pure self-expression. I’m not entirely sure how to define “self,” the “who” of “Who are you?” but it seems to come most vividly to life in undirected child’s play.  It’s in those moments in which a child is completely oblivious to the watching world, that the “self” appears. For Matt it was time spent in dirt. He loved digging in it, moving it, even eating it when he was a toddler. There was no plant left unturned in the house. He also passionately loved fitting things together: Lincoln Logs, Legos, K’nex. Now he’s a hardworking landscaper, fitting natural stones into various and challenging patterns, and always in the dirt.  George loved to hold conversations with imaginary persons until he started writing dialogue for imaginary characters in books, such as 1984. Walt drew and sold pictures as a kid, but he also had a huge fascination with the movement of trains. As an adult, he made pictures that moved…and he certainly sold quite a lot of them. Sometimes, the passion in the play isn’t quite so obvious. Martin used to play pranks all the time. Perhaps, though, it wasn’t the trickery that excited him, but his inhibition in pushing boundaries. He would grow up to be the American king of peaceful protest.  Many children may be drawn to particular play for its inconspicuous, rather than obvious, allure. Jackie was always drawing as a child. Her favorite gift to receive was a brand new box of Crayola crayons. Oddly enough, much of her art was colorless. What was most distinctive about her drawings, however, especially as she developed her own style, was the crisp detail work. Jackie loved the crayons for their points, not their colors, which is why she always needed a new box. Now she works with the pointiest of art tools, needles. She’s a skilled tattoo artist at a world class parlor in Southern California.

You just never know with play, I guess. Sometimes it’s a real mystery. Take Katy, for example. What she did as a child doesn’t actually constitute “play.” She would daydream about playing, making up adventures and dialogue especially. She loved to sit quietly and eavesdrop on all the adult conversations. And she loved her Barbies, but she didn’t actually play with them. She organized them, and when her best friend came over, they would each hold their doll and talk about who, WHO, is this “person” she would become that day. That is, until, Katy’s mom would call, “Time for Lindsay to go home!” “But Mom, we haven’t even started playing!!” “Katy, you’ve been in there for three hours!” What becomes of a girl like that? She probably grows up to write about other people playing and what that’s supposed to say about who they really are. Or something like that.

At the end of day, play is not peripheral to our real lives. True play, the activity we do for sheer enjoyment, is how we come to know ourselves.  It reminds us of who we once were, who we enjoyed being. 

1 Gray, Peter. (2013). Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life. Basic Books, p. 156.