On children who “don’t know how to play”

My last post stirred up a little interest, which always makes me feel both grateful and mildly alarmed.  As I said, it was a difficult situation that had left me feeling uneasy – but a lot of comments (here and elsewhere) centered on the idea of a child who “doesn’t know how to play” and that’s something I wanted to delve into further.  It’s a phrase I hear a lot, and it comes from a place of genuine concern for the consequences of children’s ever-shrinking chances to play.  When we see children who appear chronically disengaged and whose lives so far have had all the self-motivation structured out, our hearts break.  That’s good, because it shows that we care.

But when we think we meet children who “don’t know how to play”, is our assessment accurate?  Is play a skill or an instinct?  Or both?  Is it possible to entirely lose or have disabled through lack of practice something that, we argue elsewhere, is central to our humanity?

Personally, I believe that every child, every single child, knows how to play.  They each have an inner voice of play but sometimes, through continued deprivation or other trauma, they have become unable to hear it or unable to trust themselves and their surroundings enough to act upon what their intuition tells them.  This is painful to see, and it should be, because it is nothing less than a person separated from their true self.  However, our discomfort should inform our response but never determine it.

I sometimes worry that, through our own preferences for messy, creative, loose parts play we add to the burden these children already feel.  When faced with a pile of loose parts that seems to have all the other children excited, I am afraid that these might think “now I have to do something fun…  with this?”  That’s why we talk so much about creating an inviting and inspiring environment full of cues and entry points.   That’s also why I think having some recognizable toys in a mixed setting can be amazingly beneficial, because they offer a familiar hook for children that need one.  They can lower the threshold of participation and flow.

People have suggested that I could have directed this girl in play, or given her a ‘playful task’.  That’s true.  It’s also true that if we’d had more time together a range of possibilities may have become clear.  I could have gained a better sense of her as an individual, her interests, and we could have slowly built a relationship.  I only had a brief moment, a tiny chance with her, but I still wanted to follow her lead.

When she walked in, there were paints and trucks and balls of yarn around.  There were things that would have been familiar from art class or craft projects, but she wasn’t attracted to them.  Other children were playing, and she observed them for a moment but didn’t look eager to join.  I was puttering around, clearly available for conversation, but she asked her questions and discarded my suggestions.  If I remember right, the other member of staff was converting a wheelie bin into a dinosaur, and would certainly have welcomed another pair of hands.  The girl genuinely, authentically, was not interested.  And that’s absolutely fine.

Now, if a child looks lost or nervous or keen, if they bobble round me like a small satellite, I will absolutely offer little tasks.  I’ll start playing with something and ask for help, or pick up a little truck and roll it over to them hopefully.  But this girl did not linger near me, preferring to maintain a distance that I found unsettling but wanted to respect.  This time, which she had not asked to spend in the play setting, was hers and not mine.  Just because she didn’t know what to do with it didn’t mean that she wanted to be told.

This child has adults, possibly every adult in her life, making it clear what is expected of her every moment of the day.  Her head is filled with the clutter of other people’s expectations, their requirements for her to be considered “good”.  Now, as my friend and colleague Suzanna knows, I’m more comfortable with the children who throw rocks at grannies than I am with the polite and obedient ones who look up at me so blankly.  We all have our own preferences and triggers, but I had the strong desire not to be another adult who thought she knew what was best for this child.  I didn’t want her to feel obligated to “play” just because I reckon it’s important.

Maybe she sat in the quiet, and it was unfamiliar.  Maybe in that quiet she could feel the fabric squares beneath her skin, maybe she felt bored and that was unfamiliar.  Maybe in the absence of other voices she could begin to hear her own, and though it spoke a half-remembered language she could hear an echoing whisper of sense.  I do not know.  None of us know, because this process of the soul coming home is possibly the most obscure one in play.  It is absolutely internal and utterly profound, because it is the moment when self meets self.  It may not be comfortable.  It may not be quick.  It will certainly not be visible from the outside at first because, like seeds, this process is one that begins in the dark.

Now, I will never be sure if what I did was right.  We are never sure, not a single day of our lives, but the answer to that doubt is not necessarily “do more”.  I think that we are not meeting children who don’t know how to play, but children whose inner voices are so quiet that we can’t hear it – so we assume that they can’t hear it either.  We assume that it is gone.  By rushing children to begin doing things that look like play to us just to make us feel more at ease, we risk doing them a terrible disservice.

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One thought on “On children who “don’t know how to play”

  1. Really well written piece Morgan, I completely ‘get’ it. Its maybe this maybe that, as we, as much as we try to tune in with children, we don’t have any idea what’s inside their heads or hearts. That little girl may have had an awful morning where she felt disconnected with her surroundings, in shock or, your setting just didn’t have anything that took her fancy.

    The assumption is apparent with adults including us players that children should act like children and there’s healthy play/disturbing play. Then there’s what we have been taught through our learning about dark play and how we should be supporting all types for all types of children. But we forget sometimes that many children may possibly be thinking like adults, because of their experiences or just the way they are wired. We have adults who think like children, and we tell them to grow up. But everybody has an output of some sort for this playful release, so even if this girl didn’t act like a child in an obvious way or played in an obvious way, there’s an output somewhere inside her that obviously that small amount of time you spent with her, didn’t trigger.

    I think you did the right thing of keeping the situation in her control, she may have not felt in control initially being taken there by a distracted parent so was literally dumped in that room with you and other children. If an adult was put in that situation against their will, I don’t think they’d be happy.

    If you are registering the children in your setting as they drop in, like we do at Bath Area Play Project, you wouldve had her details to possibly arrange for her to attend again but after having a conversation with the mother.


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