Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Culture of Play

(My children playing Ninja Turtles with a group of neighbourhood friends one summer afternoon. Nicholas, aged 9, is the boy in the middle wearing the aqua-green shirt. Son, Joshua, aged 5, stands next to him in the yellow shorts. Daughter, Sarah-Beth, 3 years old, is the little girl in the red dress. They had made their own masks, shields and swords.)

This past spring break, I found myself immersed and fascinated by my grandchildren’s play. One afternoon, the two youngest, gap-toothed eight and nine years olds, sat side by side with hand held video games. "They’re interactive", my son said.

In what language do they construct their inner worlds, their utopian places and sites of belonging, I wondered?

My mother had a rag doll. Literally. It was made of pieces of material from her mother’s rag bag. It had button eyes, woolen hair and a sewn on smile. She rocked it, sang lullabies to it, loved it with all the fervour of her burgeoning mother-heart. My sister, Amanda, eschewed all girly toys and played with meccano and lego, constructing the elaborate houses and castles of her dreams. My daughter, Sarah-Beth, composed with the magnetic coloured letters of a plastic alphabet. I can still her now, on her knees before the fridge, creating a litany of words. She also rarely went anywhere without at least one of her garish plastic 'My Little Ponies'. She was forever combing their tangled manes and arranging them in colourful rows and formations. My sons lived in an alternate universe of Transformers and leaping Ninja Turtles.

Something stirs in me from the well of my own childhood play. Besides my own well-loved baby dolls and my adored paper cut-out dolls, I remember the magic of marbles; crystals, peewees, King cobs, steelies. A many coloured collection of treasures kept in a drawstring bag, it might have been unearthed from some pirate’s cache. Mostly we girls just watched the boys play, but I had my own little stash, thrilling to the feel and look of the round weights in my palm.

I knew the rhythmic geometry of the yoyo, spinning globes with string inviting me to "walk the dog, rock the cradle, go around the world". I also recall with enjoyment  the all girls' games of Jacks and hopscotch, and the large group games of 'Mother, Mother May I?' and 'Red Rover, Red Rover".

The virtual world of today’s games seems to make the earth miniscule and children giants. Yet, they are able to draw new boundaries, make reality oscillate in a new dimension.

Toys and children’s joy; inimitable, personal.

As a little girl, I knew the poetry of the jump rope. The rope coming round would invite me to risk a jump into the split second of – NOW. Here is the truth of playing. Enter the narrow gate of now, for there is no other time.

Need we ever go far beyond the poetry of children playing?


  1. Lovely post.

    I wish adults could play more often, me included. But as soon as we do, we're seen as childish.

    Aren't we really just being alive?

  2. Oh, the magic of a child at play, Jo. Can there be anything more heart-lifting?

    My grandchildren bring out the child in me. Some would tell you it doesn't need much encouragement. The fact is, I love to play. Children are so uninhibited and, as a result, their imaginary worlds are fun places to visit.

  3. My grandsons love their handheld video games. I like for them to have them for car trips and occasional quiet play, but usually I prefer to entice the grandchildren outside for nature walks or rowdier play.

  4. The video games do all the imagining for them. That's a sereious loss of brain development and waste of time. A couple of bath towel capes and 3' sticks is all boys should need for an afternoon's adventure.

    BTW: nobody in the US has heard of mecanno. I lived and died by the stuff as a kid,

  5. What a wonderful ode to play! I have so many memories of my own--mud pies, toy inventions, pretend games of "house" or "college". Did you get to see the NYTimes article "Effort to Restore Children’s Play Gains Momentum" last week? ( It appears that are many people who are working to provide these wonderful opportunities to provide the fun and freedom for children to play.

  6. I remember, as a young girl, playing house in a very special place in our backyard. It was a small clearing surrounded by bushes, just enough for privacy. My friends and I hauled our dolls and dishes out each day and spent hours playing together. Many years later I looked at that space and it didn't really seem like anything special but for me, at that time in my life, it holds precious memories.

  7. My girlfriend teaches Kindergarten and they removed the blocks and creative play items from her room. No time for play... got to get ready for testing. It's a shame, so we grandmas have to make up for it by encouraging our grandchildren to play as we did. If we build imaginary worlds together, we can guide them to some places they may not have thought about, then, let them soar.