There is a season of childhood play that is physical and imaginative. It is a season of touching, tasting, singing, jumping, play-doh, bubbles, puddles, mud pies, sand, bugs, forts, acting out stories, helping, squishing food, favorite stories read by heart, coloring and drawing, pretending, dress-up, puppets, sticks, face paint and finger paint, and bubble baths.
Many kids need a longer phase of this play than others before they are ready to begin academic learning.
Many need to pause academic learning, and return to this phase to (re)learn play in a safe environment and family.
Many never got it in the beginning of their life at all and bravely survived their earliest years, and need to be introduced to this season of play.
Play is at the center of my daughter’s life right now, and that is currently my brave intention as her mom. And my insecurity about it is partially what spurred me on to finally create this blog.
I am learning that before any child, of any age, is ready for academic learning or schooling of any kind, there is a critical stage of growth that must come first for healthy development:
A deeply nurturing phase of unstructured play (physical, creative, imaginative & outdoor) with family and on their own. This is when a child experiences the world with their hands and all of their senses.
For children whose histories include foster care, adoption, trauma or other Adverse Childhood Experiences, these cozy family play times are even more meaningful as they are building new bonds of connection and attachment perhaps with new family.
I believe that my daughter’s need for play is so critical, that I have to be careful not to overschedule us and risk having a day without free play. Play as our core learning helps me not wander into the momentary panic of “But we should be doing [insert academic thing] more!” Nope. Playing is getting us ready for that! My daughter regularly returns to her school for recess and lunch, to maintain her friendships. At our last visit, the office staff asked “How is homeschooling going?” and I gave them a nutshell version of this. They all nodded firmly and agreed: “That is absolutely what she should be doing with you! Everything else will come in its own time. Sounds like you’re doing great.” (Talk about validation for this learning-to-be-brave mama).
I am being specific in naming this unstructured play to differentiate it from social play (playground, playdates), games that have rules or structure, or creative play where the parent leads and the child follows. All of these are important! But the ability to imagine and create all on ones own is truly brain-growing and heart-growing stuff.
Sweetpea has always had dolls… a LOT of dolls and stuffies. Their names change frequently, most are ignored, none were favorites. Until a few weeks ago. My creative daughter built and painted this cardboard box dollhouse in the driveway for her Barbies. My husband and I were shocked that the following two days, she voluntarily skipped her one episode of TV each day to play with it. We leaned into where her blossoming imaginative play was taking her. Two days later, we splurged and bought her a real life Barbie Dream House and enough Barbies to make a family. A doll life big enough to immerse herself in.
These Barbies have names and relationships with each other. The little sissies fight and squabble. The teenage daughter is sassy. She tucks them in bed every night as part of our bedtime routine, and leaves a nightlight on for them. The Barbies went to see “A Wrinkle in Time” with us and she covered their eyes at the intense parts. She and I sit side-by-side and act out little family life scenarios, sometimes for multiple hours a day.
This is seriously important play she’s doing!
Learning from the research of others helps me feel confident and know I’m making the right, brave choice for my kiddo. And while we are a secular family who are part of a Unitarian Universalist (UU) community, I find inspiration and wisdom from many faith traditions and educational ideologies. Below are some thoughts on this family play phase from the perspectives of the Thomas Jefferson Education model and the Waldorf model (both have roots in Christianity).
Core Phase, a Cocoon (Thomas Jefferson Education Model)
I’ve read a little about the “TJEd” method of homeschooling/unschooling. There is a concept of theirs that reverberated around in my head for weeks. It was immediately validating for me, as a parent to a kid from hard places who is (re)learning the joys of imaginative free play.
TJEd families call the beginning phase of learning the Core Phase.
“The lessons of the Core Phase are best learned through daily experiences in home life, uncomplicated by the secondary goals of academic achievement.”
A young child who lives almost entirely in the present moment and learns through play. Family life at home with a predicable daily rhythm that includes lots of physical and sensory play, quiet activities like reading with parents, family meals and helping with chores.
“Core Phase is that magical time of nurture and growth, almost like a cocoon. … The lessons of Core Phase are taught through work and play as a family. They are:
- right and wrong
- good and bad
- true and false
- family values
- family routines and responsibilities
- learning accountability
- the value and love of work
Physical Stage (Waldorf Model)
Many of the people who know our family in real life have mentioned Waldorf to us. We live in the mountains, our family is oriented towards nature, we appreciate the slow and gentle. So while it is not a model we follow, there is a lot of overlap and similarity. Just like the Thomas Jefferson Ed model, this excerpt below sounds similar: safe, connection, nature, play, helping at home, crafts, imagination, singing, and a lack of explicit instruction or “teaching”.
The first stage on the path to ‘ethical individualism’ is that of the physical … ritual, a safe environment and a deep connection with nature.
The child learns through non-self-conscious imitation in a nurturing environment to help them with this … [T]hey are encouraged to help out with physical activities such as chopping vegetables to make their own soup, painting or polishing wood, and simple crafts like finger knitting and sewing.
Rather than being directly ‘taught’, the imagination and thought processes are allowed to develop through song, story and puppet shows … and daily work and play outside to keep them grounded and steeped in reality.
How does your family nurture play?
I can only write from my own experiences. I am curious to know how families with older kids or teens nurture this kind of free, physical, natural play in older kids who may have missed this stage in their early years. For those who also have young children, what are some of your family’s favorite play moments?