Soon after the Boston Marathon attacks, I wrote a post called play = comfort
. I had just spent a day in lockdown with my husband and our two young daughters and was reminded of how much solace we can find in play – not just children, but adults as well.
Ultimately, the feeling of being in lockdown (mandated to stay at home because a man armed with explosives was nearby) is best described as “powerless”. The powerlessness I felt was horrifying, humbling, and very real. Given varied circumstances around the world, some adults and children feel this extreme lack of control all the time.
For others, well, we typically feel out of control because we lose our last contact lens, debit card, and only front door key all on the same day that we forget that it’s “pyjama day” at preschool, our kid is the only one in regular clothes, and we spill most of an iced coffee down the front of our white shirt just before a meeting. What? That’s never happened to you? Oh, okay, me neither…
Anyway, the more I watch children at play, the more fully I understand that play = comfort and play = power. Play can offer deep comfort partly because it allows us to create our own sense of control or power in our lives. Children specifically crave this power because, let’s face it, even when a child has the “best” circumstances (e.g., predictable relationships, shelter, clean water, healthcare, and, in certain cases, the difficult choice of sushi, Indian, or brick oven pizza for dinner) children do not have much actual power. In an adult-directed world, children may have too many choices and still feel powerless.
This is where play comes in. Children create their own sense of comfort by controlling their world in the safe space of play. I feel more relaxed just having written that sentence. Again: children create their own sense of comfort by controlling their world in the safe space of play. Allow them this. Can we? Can adults, regardless of how much we want children to succeed on standardized tests, compete on the indoor soccer team, and perform in the most highly-acclaimed local version of The Nutcracker, can we offer children the basic opportunities they need to feel powerful in their own intrinsically-motivated play?
I believe we can. First, adults must allow children time and space to play. Then, when a child is clearly feeling in control of her play, when the power is visible in her eyes, don’t be scared – just look closer. Look for this power, understand the need for control in a world that can seem really out of control, and support it. When a child wants to play “Mommy and baby” (and always be Mommy) for days and weeks on end, we can recognize how important this shift in the role is for the child. When a child needs to be the bad monster, evil witch, or superhero, we can become the fearful child or mouse, running in fear or calling out for rescue. When adults understand play in this context of comfort and control, it is easier to support play without feeling powerless, threatened, or “out of control” ourselves.
When we see that a child is not actually harming anyone, we don’t always have to put down the sticks.
Sometimes, we need to raise them higher.
play = power