The Importance of Play

The way a child wants to play is often very different from the way his parents want him to. The child, however, knows best
Toys as Symbols

There are many contributions that only parents can make to the play of their children. For example, no teacher, and certainly no age‑mate, can be as deeply and personally involved in play that seems to relate to the child's future as are his parents. Play is anchored in the present, but it also takes up and tries to solve problems of the past, and is often future‑directed, as well. So a girl's doll play anticipates her possible future motherhood and also helps her to deal with emotional pressures of the moment. If she is jealous of the care a sibling receives from their mother, doll play permits her to act out and master her ambivalent feelings. She deals with their negative aspects by mistreating the doll, who represents her sibling. In this symbolic way a girl is able to punish her sibling for her jealous agonies, of which the sibling is the innocent cause. She can make amends for her negative attitude and satisfy the positive elements of her ambivalence when she takes good care of the doll, just as her mother does of the sibling, and in this way can free herself from guilt and identify with her mother. In taking good care of the doll the girl can also identify with the doll, and thus vicariously receive the care her mother lavishes on the sibling. Thus in many ways doll play is closely connected with a girl's relation to her mother.

It is a misfortune for boys that they are only rarely offered the opportunity to play with dolls and even more rarely encouraged to do so. Many parents feel that doll play is not for boys, and because of this boys are usually prevented from dealing with issues such as sibling rivalry and problems of family constellation (emotional grouping), among many others, in this convenient symbolic way. Perhaps if parents could see how eagerly boys use dolls and doll houses in psychoanalytic treatment—certainly as eagerly and persistently as girls do—to work out family problems and anxieties about themselves, they would be more ready to recognize the value of doll play for both sexes. For example, in doll‑house play boys—as eagerly as girls—put a figure representing their sibling out of the house, put a figure representing a parent on the roof or lock it in the basement, place both parents together in bed, seat a figure representing themselves on the toilet or have it mess up the house, and in countless other ways visualize, act out, and thus become better able to deal with pressing family problems.

Some parents, especially fathers, think that doll play is contrary to masculinity. It is not. There is a great deal in a boy's past (just as there is in a girl's)—the way he was fed, held, bathed, and toilet‑trained—that he can best master through doll play or through play with doll­house furniture, such as tubs and toilets. There are present‑day problems, such as sibling rivalry, for him too. And although child care will probably play a more peripheral role in his future than in that of a girl, it may be a very important aspect of his life as a father. If parents are worried that doll play may feminize a boy, all they need for reassurance is to watch how boys play with dolls, because it is very different from the way girls play with them. Unless a boy has already embraced femininity by reason of severe neurosis, his approach is quite distinctly masculine, typically much more aggressive and manipulative than that of girls—for example, boys make their dolls have fights much more often than girls do.

True, boys' doll play is usually shorter‑lived than girls', and not quite as significant an experience for them; but this is no reason that they should lose out entirely on what doll play can offer them. Actually, toys typically viewed as being for boys (dump trucks, racing cars, railroad sets, and many others), though they may offer a chance to work out problems of the present and anticipate the future, are much less suitable than dolls for mastering difficulties of the past. If parents feel relaxed about their son's playing with dolls, they will provide him with valuable opportunities for enriching his play life. For them to do so, it is not sufficient that they simply refrain from disparaging such play. Because of the still prevalent attitude that doll play is only for girls, both parents need to have a positive feeling about a boy's doll play if he is to be able to take full advantage of it.

It is relatively rare for a parent to become as engrossed in a play activity as his child does, but there are toys that evoke deep feelings in a parent, as they do in a child. Dolls are probably the best example of this. Whether a mother merely watches her daughter play with dolls, encourages her in it, or actively participates, she is often deeply involved on many levels. She may re‑experience aspects of her own childhood doll play and her own mother's involvement in such play and in herself. The child as she plays with her doll feels, in some way, strong emotions that reign in her mother's conscious and subconscious mind, and experiences a closeness to her mother based on the deep emotional involvement they both have in the girl's doll play. This closeness gives the play a special significance and depth of meaning for the child which it never could attain without the mother's involvement.

In order for the child's doll play to take on this special significance, the mother need not always be physically present, nor when she is present must she be so personally involved on many levels; it is enough if the child carries a mental image of her mother's involvement. One such experience of involvement with her mother can make an impact so lasting that the child will carry this image within her and reactivate it whenever she plays with her doll—it is that meaningful. She will continue to react to the emotional signals she has received from her mother and to combine them in her doll play with other feelings that originate in her past and present experiences of being mothered and playing at mothering. Important as her feelings are about being mothered and about someday becoming a parent herself, her doll play could not attain the same depth of meaning if her mother had not on occasion been deeply and personally involved because of the recollections it evoked in her.

A Double Standard

Certainly parents are happy to see their children absorbed in play. But are they equally happy to become engrossed in the playing themselves? If a child's play is pleasurable to a parent chiefly because it allows him to pursue his adult activities without feeling bad about neglecting his child, it does not take the child long to realize this. He soon learns that to his parents play itself is not very important, but his being out of their way is; this lesson simultaneously diminishes him and his enjoyment of play and reduces the capacity of play to develop his intelligence and personality.

The true test of a parent's beliefs about play is not what he says but how he behaves. The fact is that parents often behave inconsistently. Sometimes all goes well: The parent is not doing anything of particular importance, and his child asks him to play. The parent obliges. The child wants him to admire what he has built, and the parent again obliges. But if the parent is occupied with something that demands his attention, usually his response to the request is, "Not now—I'm busy." If the parent is in a good mood, he may preface his refusal with an apology or a promise to make up for it later—a promise not always kept. Parents tend to assume that if a child doesn't repeat his plea, he has either lost interest or forgotten about it. But many a child hears "In a few minutes" as a brush‑off, and he's not all that eager to receive a second brush‑off by repeating his request.

Such parental behavior suggests to children that their activities rarely seem as important to parents as the parents' activities, and hardly ever more important. There is nothing very much wrong with that: if both parties are seriously engaged, why should parents drop what they are doing to join heir child? The situation is different, of course, when there is an emergency. In such cases the transfer of our attention is virtually automatic. This is very important for the security of the child, and some bright children test how reliably they can depend on our reaction by claiming that an emergency has arisen. Others, without necessarily wishing to ascertain how dependable their parents will be in a crisis, pretend that an emergency exists in order to bring a parent hurrying to their side when they have a great desire to tell or show the parent something of importance. But this works only a few times. Then the parents cease to respond, and make no bones about their annoyance at being taken advantage of in this way—as in the fable of the child who cried "wolf' once too often. This is understandable. But are parents really being taken advantage of when a child goes to great lengths to signal how important it is that they come to him, emergency or no emergency? Or, to put it differently, is only what parents consider an emergency—such as an actual danger or mishap—­truly an emergency? Is not a child's need to reassure himself that he and what he is doing are important also an emergency? If a parent is just a bit more patient with a child's claim of emergency, even if all the child needs is to convince himself that the parent is ready to drop everything and rush to his side, then the child will feel more secure about his importance to the parent. This improvement in the child's security will be reflected in a parallel improvement in his relationship with his parent. Such a result may well be worth the inconvenience of responding to what we don't regard as real emergencies. As the child grows and matures, he will learn to accept that it is unreasonable to expect that if two people are deeply engaged, one will always be ready to quit what he is doing to join the other.

What happens when a child is engrossed in play and the parents are ready to go out? They call him to come and get dressed. Or perhaps they want him to greet a visitor, or come to the table for lunch. His answer is, as ours would be in an analogous situation, "Not now—I'm busy." Are we prepared to honor our child's statement, as we expect him to honor ours? Or do we insist: "You come here, right now"? If we do, then we have once again succeeded in impressing on him that we do not take his activities as seriously as we do our own. Worse, we have demonstrated that we do not take his activities seriously at all when they conflict with our plans. If we truly took our child's play as seriously as we take our own tasks, we would be as loath to interrupt it as we are reluctant to be interfered with when we are working. This is the pattern demanded by consistency and a sense of fairness, and one reward for thus respecting our child's play is that it enhances his own sense of play as an important activity in the whole context of family life.

Despite how important it is that we encourage play, it is never beneficial for parents to play with their children strictly out of a sense of duty. To play because one "should" is simply not the same as playing together with one's child, or even appreciating the importance of his play. This confusion about the parent's intent is precisely what mars so much of the child's play with his parents. Many adults, whether parents or teachers, tend to play with children for purposes outside the play; they may wish to distract, entertain, educate, diagnose, or guide them. But this is not what the child desires. Unless the play itself is the thing, it loses much of its meaning to the child, and adult participation becomes offensive; the child can guess the adult's purpose and becomes annoyed at the pretense of wholehearted participation.

The use of educational toys, so dear to the hearts of many parents, may serve as an illustration. There is really nothing wrong with educational toys if the emphasis is entirely on the enjoyment of play and not on the intent of educating. Such toys become problematic, however, when parents emphasize what using the toy supposedly teaches the child over how the child desires to use it. Educational toys become absolutely deadly when the child is expected to learn what they are designed to teach rather than what he wants to learn. A child must be permitted to use a toy the way he wishes to (if the toy is not made of any dangerous materials, of course), not as the parent, teacher, or manufacturer thinks it ought to be used.

It is amazing what an infant can learn just by playing with the cardboard core of a roll of toilet paper, and how constructive, imaginative, and educative a child's play with empty boxes can be. In earlier days, when thread came on wooden spools, young children used the spools as blocks and gained as much pleasure and learning from them as they do now from specially constructed building blocks. Indeed, they probably got something more out of playing with spools than they do with blocks, because they knew that their mothers, too, made use of spools. Thus both child and parent found something important represented in wooden spools, whereas blocks are important only to the child.

Some parents spontaneously realize the value of having a personal investment in their child's play objects, although they are not always conscious that this is what motivates them. They instinctively add a measure of mutuality to their child's pleasure, without setting out to do so. Some of these parents may have the time and inclination to fashion toys for their children, thereby duplicating what their own parents or grandparents did out of necessity. Such parents become emotionally involved in the toys they have created with their own hands. They get enormous enjoyment not only from the task but also from imagining how their child will play with these toys. The meaning the parents have invested in the toys remains active as they play with their child or watch his play.

Other parents make the production of toys a common project. For example, with the child's help they collect scraps of wood. Together parent and child cut and sand the wood; perhaps the child invites some of his friends to help with this labor and with the painting and the shellacking that follows. From then on and ever after these blocks are very special to child and parent. No store­-bought blocks can compare in importance to these visible and tangible examples of the child's and the parent's common investment in a toy.

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