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Let Children Play

         A FaceBook picture shows Capshaw Elementary School’s Pre-K students playing in mud puddles.  I applaud their teacher!  It wasn’t just an activity to improve tactile fine motor development – it was a learning experience.           

I’ve searched online and through my hand-written collection of quotes, but I haven’t found three simple words: let children play. I did discover many quotes about children and play.

         Maria Montessori, an educator and physician who was a leader in identifying how children learn, wrote that play is the work of the child.

         The beloved Fred Rogers, host of the educational television program Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood for 33 years, said, “Play is often talked about as if it was a relief from serious learning, but for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” 

            Dr. Benjamin Spock, the child expert of my parents’ generation wrote, “A child loves his play, not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard.”

         Play is work?  Yes, play is to engage in an activity, to pretend, to create, and work is performing a task that requires effort. 

         I’m reminded of what my Grand said when he was about six years old and sat under a forsythia brush while I trimmed it.  He used a small garden shovel to level roads for his Matchbox cars.  When I stepped near him, he said, “Watch out, Gran! I’m working under here.” Working, not playing.

         Oftentimes, we adults think we’re giving children freedom to play when we’re actually in control.  The play that Ms. Montessori, Mr. Rogers, and Dr. Spock encouraged is child-led play.  Not an organized team sport.  Not helping to build a tree house.  Not playing cards or board and tile games, which I invite my Grands to play with me.

         Children need unstructured, unplanned, undirected play. Digging in the dirt. Pretending to be a dragon.  Drawing purple sunflowers. Building a fortress with fallen branches.  Climbing trees. Watching an anthill. Throwing a ball against a wall.  Preparing a meal of mud and grass and twigs. Play that children think of and carry out independently.

         It’s the responsible of adults to provide children a safe place to play and supervise them, maybe from afar.  Let toddlers play within sight and give older children privacy.  Provide time, without distractions and directions. 

            Let children make a mess and be responsible for cleaning up.  Let children make mistakes and solve problems.  Through trial and error, lessons are remembered.

            Children need to learn to entertain themselves.  Provide supplies and tools that they request and have safe materials available, but don’t expect finished products. Expect experiences. Expect learning.

         The picture of children playing in mud puddles reminds me of the parents who decided their son wouldn’t begin Kindergarten even though he was old enough, according to school policy.  “He’s going to stay home and dig in the dirt another year,” the mother said. 

          Since I never found the simple quote I searched for, I’ll claim these words:  Let children play.  Give them the gifts of independence and confidence.


After a Rain

IMG_3042  On a warm sunny day after several rainy days, five-year-old Ruth squats low to the ground under a maple tree in her backyard. I walk near her and see that she’s stirring a small puddle of muddy water with a stick.

“What’re you doing, Ruth?” I ask. She looks up. There are mud streaks on her cheeks and she hands me a plastic glass filled with brown liquid with bubbles on top.

“I made chocolate milk with soap and mud. Do you want to taste it?” my Grand says.  I shake my head. “I did and it’s disgusting!” Ruth says. She turns her back to me, picks up a handful of mud, molds it into a ball, and flattens it. “Now I’m making a pancake.” She places the mud pancake on a flat rock, scoops muddy water out of the mud puddle, and splashes it on top of the pancake.

She holds the rock toward me. “Try it, Gran. It has chocolate sauce on top and it’s delicious!” I pretend to take a bite and agree that it is delicious.

“As delicious as the mud pies that I made when I was a child. I put gravel in them and sold them to my dad for a nickel,” I say. Ruth asks why I used gravel. “The gravels were chocolate chips.” Ruth nods and turns back to the dirt. I expect that she’ll ask for a nickel for the pancake, but she doesn’t.

Using a plastic shovel and her fingers, my Grand digs in loose dirt and uncovers earthworms. She holds one in her hands and it wiggles. She puts the worm in an orange plastic sand bucket that is half full of muddy water. Then she holds another worm until it too tries to wiggle away, and she puts it into the bucket. I tell Ruth that I played with worms when I was a little girl. She puts both hands in the bucket of water and wraps a worm around her fingers and says, “They really like me, but they can’t live with me so I put them in water and they’ll be happy.” If worms can feel happy, these two certainly should.

Ruth swishes her hands in the bucket of water and wipes them over the grass and then down the side of her shorts. She leaves her mud play and climbs up the ladder of the jungle gym and slides down the five-foot long slide. She jumps on the trampoline with her older brother and sister. I stand outside on the driveway and talk with Daughter as we watch her children play.

Ruth soon returns to the mud puddle and again smashes more mud between her hands. From several feet away, I hear her talking about mud pies and pancakes and chocolate chips and chocolate sauce. She stops her mud play and picks up another earthworm and puts it in the bucket.

It’s time for me to leave Ruth’s family’s home. I tell Daughter and my Grands goodbye, get hugs and kisses, and turn on my car’s ignition. “Wait!” Daughter says and holds up one hand, “Ruth wants to tell you something else.” I roll the car window down.

My Grand yells. “Look out, Gran! There’s a worm. Don’t run over it!”

I wouldn’t dare. That worm will be happy with its friends in Ruth’s bucket of water.