Thursday, June 7, 2012

Rosy-cheeked and Resourceful (an article on play)

Rosy-cheeked and Resourceful 
(an article on play)

Whenever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the forest, a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.  Closing lines of Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne

     A pleasing feature of home education is that the transition from Kindergarten to that of the higher grades can be a gradual one. Definite lessons for the first grader require his attention. These lessons are formal and do not resemble play but because seatwork is completed in far less time than the conventional classroom, more time is available for other developmental activities . . .and play.

New York,  New York

     Play is a wellspring of refreshing water that bubbles up and flows through the activities of the child. Play produces joy, freedom, satisfaction, repose, and peace. The spontaneous impulse of a child to explore comes from his wellspring of curiosity.

Photograph by Nat Farbman

     The most intelligent creatures in the animal kingdom do the most play. In fact, it may seem to us that they spend an inordinate amount of time playing. Consider the otter, the dolphin, puppies and kittens and how much of their time is spent in play.

     In the autobiographical book, Ring of Bright Waters, naturalist Gavin Maxwell says of his pet, “Otters that have been reared by human beings demand human company, much affection, and constant co-operative play; without these things they quickly become unhappy, and for the most part they are tiresome in direct ration to their discontent.” *1 Does this sound like any children you know?  

     Before Mr. Maxwell moved with his otter Mij to Camusfearna, on the seaside of Scotland, Mij was confided to a London studio apartment. “When he was loose in the studio, he would play for hours at a time with what soon became an established selection of toys, ping-pong balls, marbles, India-rubber fruit, and a terrapin shell that I had brought back from his native marshes.” *2  I’ve read as far as chapter eight but I know (from seeing the 1960s film) that soon Mij revels in the expansive freedom of the seaside.  
Manhattan, New York

     In the late 20th century, wherever our family moved, the neighborhoods were strangely quiet. I remember feeling it a pity that my children were missing something that had been a happy part of my childhood. My children didn’t notice anything missing. They happily played together. 

     But I couldn’t help it. There were days when I would import children into our backyard – usually children of a home teaching friend. 

     Today, in the 21st century neighborhoods are quieter than ever. But a little networking is all it takes to plan an occasional hour or so of neighborhood-ish play.

     A couple generations ago neighborhoods were safe. And they were noisy. Rollicking children yelled at the top of their lungs, “Ready or not here I come” and sought those who hid or ran at top speed to tag their playmates. The branches of trees had children in them. Wagons, wheel barrows and make sift go-carts had children in them. Kick-the-can added to the noise of the street. My mother joined in. 

Photograph by George Marks

     Metal roller skates rattled over the cracks of the sidewalk. My mother gave me a pair. The shinny metal skates triggered a memory of hers. She told me how her Victorian born and bred grandmother was adamant that Joanie didn’t roller skate on Sunday afternoons. “It isn’t proper,” she said, “when people are sitting in their front parlors [eight feet from the sidewalk] trying to relax.”

     Dolls were pushed in baby carriages. Girls doted over their dolls.

     My father told me that the boys on his block (1930-40s) would huddle together to thumb marbles with intense interest in the outcome. He was one of them. My mother became skilled at jacks.

     In my own childhood, if a car was turning the corner, the first child to spy it would alert the others in the street with, “Car, car, c-a-r, stick your head in a jelly jar.” I was a baby-boomer born in the heavily populated state of New Jersey, twenty miles from Manhattan, during the glorious - perhaps last remaining - days of neighborhood play.

     Hopscotch was played on the street methodically day after day. We girls took the game seriously. I became quite good at balancing for my rock and avoiding any stepping on a chalk line. 

     What I wasn’t good at were the games “Red Light, Green Light, and “Mother May I?” played by boys and girls together after supper. I humbly obeyed the oft-voiced commands of “go back” by my betters. Only when we swatted our first mosquito did we break up and go inside.  

Photograph by Ralph Morse

     Attention deficit was at an all-time low in the days of neighborhood play. Play develops the brain and prepares children for more complicated thinking. It is why I made, “Ready, Set, Go” a chapter in my book, A Charlotte Mason Companion, as well as a chapter on playing with sand. Do my critics who say the book is full of “fluff” hold the point-of-view that legitimate brain development is only what takes place at a desk? Maybe they just don’t understand. Maybe play, and all its benefits, is a forgotten phenomenon.

My grandsons in the sandbox

     Childhood is precious. Yet, it is disappearing. Mothers who are attracted to the Victorian writings of Miss Charlotte Mason, I suspect are the same mothers who seek to preserve it. Miss Mason did. In the synopsis of her educational theory she says, first and foremost, that children are born persons. Turn a few pages of Home Education and we are set among detailed chapters on how to educate the whole “person.” 
     In our modern media-saturated society children are sucked into themes and images of the adult world before they are ready. Many home teachers acknowledge the usefulness of screens but are aware of the dangers of overuse, too. They seek, for their children, the innocence and creative intelligence that a more old-fashioned definition of the term “childhood” provides. In our electronic age an old-fashioned childhood may seem prolonged or backward. Couldn’t it be that the reverse is true; that childhoods today are cut short?

     I learned from Charlotte Mason that, although she had a high regard for the right sort of books, and the discipline of daily lessons, education doesn’t begin and end with books. Neither does childhood and play end with Kindergarten. In Home Education first published in 1886 she tells us:

That play, vigorous, healthful play, is, in its turn fully as important as lessons as regards both bodily health and brainpower.
That the knowledge most valuable to the child is that which he gets with his own eyes and ears and fingers (under direction) in the open air.
That the claims of the schoolroom should not be allowed to encroach on the child’s right to long hours daily for exercise and investigation.” *3

     Take a leap forward in time. In Dr. Jane Healy’s book, Endangered Minds, published 1990, is the chapter “Why Can’t They Pay Attention?” Here she makes a parallel between the dramatic decline in neighborhood play (75% less than the early 1900s) and a child’s inability to pay attention to more abstract types of learning.

Photograph by H. Armstrong Roberts

     Dr. Healy says that the kind of play “that involves children of different ages, basically unsupervised by adults,” enables a child “to gain visual and auditory attention, and body coordination.” 

     Through play children initiate their own noise and are set in motion by their own “sense of internal rhythms” (jump rope, tag, hopscotch, swings). 
     What is taking the place of  “the child initiative” is a bombardment from without of external rhythms and the dominant beats of hard rock music and flashy video in which the children remain passive both mentally and physically.*4

     Playful children are alert, rosy cheeked and resourceful. Isn’t this the same playpower–brainpower parallel Miss Mason spoke of more than one hundred years prior when she wrote, 

“The resourcefulness which will enable a family of children to invent their own games and occupations through the length of a summer’s day is worth more in after life than a good deal of knowledge about cubes and hexagons.” *5

     Play is for all ages. It is for the teacher and mother, too. It colors and compliments Mother Culture beautifully. Those who partake of even a morsel find it invigorating.

Your Opinions are Welcome,
Karen Andreola
End Notes
1. Gavin Maxwell, Ring of Bright Water, Longmans, pg 99
2. Ibid, pg 102
3.  Charlotte Mason, Home Education, republished by Charlotte Mason R & S Co.,1989 (I lost track of the pages because  I started writing this two years ago and recently found the rough draft on my laptop.)
4.  Jane M. Healy, Ph.D. Endangered Minds, Simon & Schuster, 1990, pgs 171-172.
5. Home Education, pg 192


  1. Oh my I am so grateful I found your blog. It is a breath of fresh air to me, and so affirming and encouraging.

    I am ashamed to say that I don't remember any longer the games and skipping rhymes etc I played in my childhood. Perhaps it is a drawback of being an older mother (30 when I had my oldest) but all those little details are long forgotten. I think I need to find a book or website of game and street play ideas because it would be a great way to get my children moving - the only game I know is "It" and "Stuck in the mud"!

  2. Karen, What joy to find your new post! My husband and I were, just the other day, lamenting the loss of play in our world. Play has been relegated to the activities of organized sports teams. It surely cannot be called play when it follows a regimen of directed drills and exercises.

    We were watching the fire-flies across the lawns last night. The scene reminded me of all the interrupted games of tag and hide-and-go-seek when we abandoned our games in favor of catching fire-flies. To this day, they and ladybugs are the only bugs I can stand to touch!

    Our twenty year old son called last evening to tell us about the swimming/waterfall diving afternoon he had enjoyed after calculus class had ended. My heart was singing to hear his delight!

    Enjoy your day!


  3. I very much enjoyed this post. In some ways, I think that play has become a lost art. Do children even know how to go into the backyard and make up an imagination game?

    I enjoyed reading Susan Schaeffer Macaulay's words on play too in "For the Children's Sake".

    Thank you for your insightful words. I'll be keeping this post to reread again.

  4. I remember playing outside almost all free hours of the day (I was a child of the 70's and 80's). It was a wonderful thing.

    My 3 home schooled kids, ages 11, 9 and 8 play outside regularly. They are few in our neighborhood that do. Many kids just stay in and play video games or work on hours of homework.

    I treasure the fact my kids are still building forts, swimming, riding bikes and packing outdoor picnics. Childhood is fleeting and it saddens me to see how the public school mentality robs children of it sooner than necessary.


  5. This is a wonderful post! The images you evoked of those early evenings chasing lightening bugs and playing with neighborhood children were lovely. I will be sharing a link on my FB page so that hopefully many mom's facing summer will be inspired by your words and pictures. BTW... love your "fluff" is the stuff we are all made of if we are willing to admit it!

  6. I agree that one of the beauties of homeschooling is the ability of children to play more. I love it that my kids aren't growing up as fast as they would in a classroom. My 10 year old is just now not wearing his cowboy hat every time we go out.

  7. I am also so very grateful for this refreshing blog. It is truly a breath of fresh air in this otherwise dark and dismal world. Thank you for blessing us with your wisdom and insight!

  8. It always fascinates me how children can play anywhere. They play in the midst of destruction, construction, streets, on pavement, on grass, on the stairs, with all kinds of props and toys, with nothing at all. I love how they find delight in whatever circumstance presents itself. Small children even play in times of great sadness. Many funerals/visitation hours have been made more bearable for our family by the presence of the children who never fail to bring their gift for finding joy.


  9. Dear Karen, These words are so true - our children NEED to play. So much neurological and social development is going on the midst of these hours, as well as the intellectual development. In my pediatric courses for Physical Therapy we were taught that a child's play is his work. All these games you mention bring about strenght of the whole system, as God ordained. Today in the clinic I see so many kids who have not swung on swings, climbed trees or jumped rope - it shows in the postural development. Also, they process the things in their world and learn about themselves as they play - so vital to carry out. Dress up is one of the best games my kids have enjoyed; when I observe them or join them, I learn much about each one of my girls.

    Continue feeding us such good truths about education. It is much greater than books.

  10. Love your blog. I always feel like I'm reading a letter for a friend. Play is so important. I'm so excited to see my own kids playing and being creative.

  11. Karen, I love this post (per usual ;) ) The old photos are so neat!

  12. Our neighborhood is generally so quiet I've actually caught myself telling my children to be quieter outside so they don't disturb the neighbors!
    We are surrounded by families with young children, and yet they are rarely outside and if they are it's with some contrived "outdoor toy". I've had other mother's ask if my children get bored outside without toys and it makes me want to cry. My children love the sandbox and swing, and I can't even count the stories I've heard reenacted after reading time. My personal favorite was when they were playing with the lions in their den after we read about Daniel during family Bible time.
    I think time to play, and especially time to play outside are so important, and I appreciate your voice of encouragement!

  13. I grew up on a farm in the 70's and early 80's. My TV watching consisted of Hew-Haw and Lawrence Welk. Summers were filled with playing outside unless the weather was bad. No child was allowed to stay inside if it was sunny outside. Also we shelled peas and butterbeans, shucked corn, cut it off the cob, and put it up in the freezer. I had no siblings but lots of cousins with whom to play. I miss that for my children.
    As far as play and education are concerned, I completely concur with you. In fact when my youngest had reached school age, he firmly stated that all this "school" stuff was interfering with his play time. He's now 12 and it saddens me to think that in 6 short years I'll be done.

  14. Dear Ladies,
    My suspicions are correct. You are mothers who respect childhood. Your letters are touching. This is a subject that tends to pull on my heart strings.

    When I was looking through vintage photographs I found one of 1940s children, smiling, playing in the rubble of the bombed out streets of London with sticks and paper hats. And yet could it be said that there are children in America today that are more deprived of a childhood than they?

    It is encouraging to see and hear of home educated children playing dress-up, acting out their storybooks, and getting outside -students both young and old taking part in recreation.

    Thank you sending your thoughts and stories my way.
    Karen A.

  15. What a fab post Karen! I just loved all those stunning photographs. I am a firm believer that children should be outside as much as possible. Memories of my own childhood and the magical days of freedom and play, as well as tales of the 'storybook' children of Enid Blyton other great authors, convinced me early on that I wanted to give my children the gift of a magical childhood. We have stood firm in our convictions and have not allowed X-box or any of those computer based games into our home, TV time is limited as is computer time. Amazingly even though we have restricted it they have still had opportunity with these things at other people's homes (controlled of course) so they are not 'deprived' in any way -LOL. Computers are tools to help us reach a goal and not an addiction. for all that, our children love being outdoors and would sooner go down the lane to spend time at the stables (even in the rain) than sit inside and watch TV etc.

    I am always saddened that even though they have had lots of outside time in their childhood, that they will never have that 'freedom of the neighborhood' that we had as children. Things are just too different.

    Thank you for this beautiful post. It was wonderful to read.

    Shirley Ann

  16. just wondering if you could encourage mothers to know that they can do without the screens and educate the old fashion way we have no tv and home educated until year 9 without using computors (this is last year) lots of books LOTS of outside time lots of drawing and writing and LOTS of discussions don't underestimate how much is learnt through discussion. we studied ww1 at the time of tonnes of bark mulch dumped in our paddock it was promptly turned into trenches and was played in for months (until it was spread under all the trees) was this organized by an adult NO by the boys because it was there and they remember all that they learnt because they PLAYED it. let them move their bodies at least half the day. Have fun. (about the mulch they did ask and we did keep an eye that all the contructions we safe)

  17. What wonderful memories and such lovely vintage photos!
    We moved to our farm so that our children would play, explore, create, and connect with themselves animals and nature. They play wonderfully for hours without strict supervision. They love dressing up, riding bikes, roller skating, skipping ropes, jumping on the trampoline, playing ball, swimming in the dam, finding flowers, taking photos, climbing trees ... good, healthy fun. Often city kids come to visit and need to be urged to participate in these activities, but when they do, it is hard to get them to leave!
    My kids wished they could live like the "Boxcar Children"!

  18. What a lovely post Mrs. Andreola! I fondly remember my "early childhood" years of playing (I am a home-educated highschooler). In the summer I would spend hours outside with the neighborhood kids and my siblings; mostly playing "make believe", climbing trees, examining insects, playing in the sprinklers, riding bikes, picking wildflowers, making bracelets, and so much more! Even now that I am older I thoroughly enjoy the tea parties, balls, and general "Let's Pretend" games I play with my sweet Charlotte Mason educated friends.

  19. We live in a large metropolitan city and I always struggled with allowing my children to go out and play because of heavy traffic, so I drive them to a different park nearly every day or we would swim all afternoon! My point is that, yes, it takes more time out of Mothers schedule but outside time is possible (and very necessary) in a large city. My 14 year old would rather play video games all day and it's still a struggle to get him outside, but I'm valiant and creative!

  20. Dear Ladies,
    This is what I like about writing in blog format, reading your comments.
    It is so good to hear of your making room for play even if it is necessary to do so at a community park. I walked my little girls to a park two blocks away from our third floor flat in England. We lived on the main street to London. The flat was tiny and with no back garden. Below us was a used car lot, laundry mat, and horse betting hall. Recalling, now, how high the park's slide was and the climbing frame, makes me cringe, but at the time I must have been quite resolute that climbing, sliding, swinging and running were important. The park was surrounded by the backs of brick row houses similar to those we have here in Lancaster City.
    Karen A.