Taylor: There’s a purpose to kids’ play

Learning negotiation skills and how to compromise is all in a day’s play.

Today is halfway between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday. It’s also Spring Break for my grandchildren—five extra days off school, plus the Easter weekend.

Most of the year, parents have their children’s after-school free time fully organized. Soccer practice, perhaps. Or swimming. Music lessons. Boys and girls club. Gym classes. Ballet. Whatever it is, it keeps the kids occupied, with some kind of adult supervision, until the parents get home from work.

Spring Break upsets the schedule.

So what do you do? You can’t just let them play unsupervised, can you? From a safety perspective, of course not.

But Peter Gray, a psychologist and research professor at Boston College in Massachusetts, suggests that unsupervised play might be children’s most valuable learning time.

Children at play, he argues, are not just playing. They’re learning how to regulate themselves.

“The reason play is such a powerful way to impart social skills,” Gray wrote in an article for Aeon Magazine, “is that it is voluntary. Players are always free to quit, and if they are unhappy they will quit. So the goal, for every player who wants to keep the game going, is to satisfy his or her own needs and desires while also satisfying those of the other players.

“Social play involves lots of negotiation and compromise.

“Preschoolers playing a game of ‘house’ spend more time figuring out how to play than actually playing. Everything has to be negotiated—who gets to be the mommy, who gets to use which props…

“Or watch an age-mixed group of children playing a pickup game of baseball. A pickup game is directed by the players themselves, not by outside authorities (coaches and umpires) as a Little League game would be. The players have to choose sides, negotiate rules to fit the conditions, decide what’s fair and foul. They have to co-operate not just with the players on their team, but also with those on the other team…”

Yes, kids get angry sometimes. But, says Gray, “Children who want to continue playing know they have to control that anger, use it constructively and not lash out. Tantrums might work with parents, but they never work with playmates.”

The lessons learned in childhood play, Gray suggests, will later influence how we handle our marriages, our work, even our worship preferences.

The proximity of Easter makes me wonder what kind of games Jesus played as a child. I’m fairly sure he didn’t play Little League baseball. Not just because baseball hadn’t been invented yet. But because Peter Gray used Little League as an example of structured play, where a distant authority defines the rules; coaches and umpires enforce them.

Jesus’ later life persuades me that most of his games were unstructured, whatever they were. Whenever external authorities—the Pharisees, the High Priests, the Romans—tried to make him play by their rules, he did things differently. He adapted. He compromised. He tried to keep all the players in the game.

And the umpires and coaches didn’t like it. You can’t have a player who doesn’t play by the rules, can you?

So they crucified him.

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