Childhood as we know it in Britain, is a relatively new thing. Until Victorian times, many children who were from working families or those in abject poverty were forced to work under terrible conditions. And while the offspring of the rich elite enjoyed toys, education and guidance, those in less affluent circumstances found that childhood was just another miserable part of life that you had to endure.
Unbelievably the first act to prevent cruelty to children was only passed in 1889. Until that date many children as young as 6 or 7 faced terrifying work in mines, chimneys or factories. They often worked for nearly 12 hours a day with one short break. Thankfully, for most children in the Western world, this way of life is a thing of the past. With the passing of the new law and subsequent laws came a newly acknowledged stage in human development: that of childhood.
What did this new Childhood mean for children?
Suddenly, children from all walks of life had more time to just be children. Play has obviously existed since time began but until now only the wealthy could afford the luxury of toys, games and the freedom of time for their children. Now, children who had previously been confined to the horrors of the strict working day had time on their hands and busy mothers actively encouraged them out of the house. This meant groups of children were gathered together with no fixed tasks to complete. And we all know what happens then. Games are invented, skipping ropes produced, balls are thrown or kicked. In other words, imagination is sparked and play commences! It’s no surprise that many of the traditional street games date from this time.
It’s hard for people living now to imagine a time when childhood didn’t exist. Now, we cherish childhood and bemoan the fact that children grow up too quickly. Our society is very much more child centred; there are designated play areas in most pubs, specialist play centres just for kids, whole channels devoted to the entertainment of small humans and mega stores stocked with every type of toy imaginable. Children now are used to having time to play, it is actively encouraged. Play is hugely important!
I would say that childhood is the most important stage of anyone’s life. It helps to shape you for the future. During those years you will find out how you like to learn. I’m not saying 5 year old’s sit around having a chat about the merits of visual learning over auditory learning but they will certainly be developing their preferred learning style and they will almost certainly be doing this while playing.
As well as allowing children to have fun, interact and develop skills and learning styles, play allows adults a little glimpse into the child’s world. As a former Early Years teacher I spent a lot of time observing the children as they learnt through play. This involved just sitting back and watching what they did, how they interacted, what they said, how they resolved issues. It is truly enlightening. In my opinion, all teachers should have time to carry out observations no matter which Key Stages they are teaching. You will learn more about that child in one observation than a term’s worth of lessons.
So why is playing so important? For this I have to point out that I have no PhD in this area, no extensive research to promote and these opinions are just that – opinions! Having watched children learn through play though, I have noticed some things that all children seem to gain from it and they are listed here.
- Fun! Children love games and they love to laugh. Play offers them the chance to explore and experience both of these, sometimes with others, sometimes by themselves, sometimes with toys/objects.
- Social Skills. Games and toys can be a way of sharing experiences with others. Sometimes the children are content to play alongside each other not really engaging but intent on the same task. Sometimes the children are totally involved with each other, collaborating, sharing ideas, disagreeing (yes arguments are all part of play too), making objects and props or making up dialogue.
- Imagination. This is key! Play allows children the chance to escape to new places, enjoy new adventures, meet new people and all without having to leave the house or garden. Children’s imagination is a wonderful thing as it is free of the constraints of common sense and life that governs adult thought processes.
- Learning/Discovery. Playing allows children to find things out. I learnt very early in life that the soil under the rose bush made better mud pies than the soil under the apple tree in our garden! Children love to find things out for themselves and play is often the pathway to this learning and discovery.
- Making mistakes. This is a great way to learn. Unfortunately, we live in a society now that judges attainment and success as being failure free. Look at the pressure to achieve straight A*’s for exam results which may prove a certain Academic achievement but doesn’t show a person’s character or problem solving skills. Personally, I think the best way to learn is to make mistakes and do it differently next time. Children using Lego soon realise that the bricks have to be laid in a certain way or they just fall over.
I still firmly believe that a cardboard box is one of the best toys you can give a child as it encompasses all of the above. Oh and some shiny paper too!
Too Old to Play?
So having looked briefly at play and childhood, it’s time to draw some conclusions. Is there a time when children should stop playing? Personally, I don’t think so. Everyone plays, we just call it hobbies in the adult world. The above list could just as easily be applied to a game of netball, golf, Amateur Dramatics or games on the beach. It’s no surprise that the leisure industry is awash with games and toys or gadgets for children aged 0-90!
Last week I found myself in the Museum of Childhood at Sudbury Hall in Derbyshire. This is a lovely place and I would recommend it for all. While there, I saw a quote from George Bernard Shaw on the wall and I’m going to use this to finish this blog. I think it sums life up really and I’m going to do my best to make sure I remember it.
“We don’t stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing!”
Thanks for reading – I’m off to play!