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The Lost Art of Play                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            By: Inge Elliott

“I couldn’t do my homework as I got home really late and…’ One would be hard-pressed to find a teacher who has not been on the receiving end of a myriad of excuses for incomplete homework, some so inspired that it offers up renewed hope that all may not be falling on deaf ears. However, it is becoming increasingly evident that ‘the dog ate my homework’ excuse has been substituted with a more relevant, yet concerning, justification…

Our children are too busy. There is the early rising and often lengthy journey to get to school. They then receive lesson after lesson for approximately six hours before embarking upon a host of extra-curricular activities which include, but are not limited to, sport, dance, art, academic consolidation, or a combination thereof. Thereafter, they travel home and must bathe, eat and do schoolwork in quick succession to ensure that they get the required amount of sleep. Day one complete. Wake up and repeat.

The consequences of a rushed state of being is evident in the lost art of play. An article entitled, The Value of Play, written by Peter Gray, identifies an element of play as a child exerting control over his or her environment. There are certain rules or procedures which govern the play activity, however, this ordered and structured arrangement of play arises organically: It is representative of children having reached a shared understanding of real-life concepts, such as ‘marriage’ and ‘work’, which is most commonly expressed through role-play. It is thus worrying that a child is losing the ability, through play, to take control of, and responsibility for, their own actions. They are not being provided with the proper opportunity to debate and construct meaning alongside their peers, in an environment that is devoid of extrinsic rewards or fear of failure.

It is in the moments of stillness, or better yet, boredom, wherein the opportunity lies to develop the skills which will enable our children to thrive in an undetermined future. We are in a unique position given that we are educating our children for occupations which may not exist at present, but will most certainly include the skills of innovation, creativity, self-management and critical thinking. These qualities are not realised through repetitive, linear activities governed and defined by adults, but rather through spontaneous interactions that arise when children are left to their own devices.

 Bad things happen to primary school teachers who suggest ‘play’ as a productive pastime. The chorus of eye-rolls is a not-so-subtle indication that our own memories of playing ‘cops and robbers’ and ‘doctor-doctor’ is so passé, it may as well be deemed archaic. However, perhaps it takes only a few readjustments to lessen the current bedlam. A reprieve may be afforded by increasing the length of break times, banning the use of cell phones during the school day, decreasing the amount of homework (or eliminating it entirely- a whole other debate) and limiting a child’s after school commitments.

A quote from a poem, aptly entitled ‘Human’, by Erin Hansen, offers the perfect conclusion:


“…For she was a human doing
Human moving, human seeing
But she’d never taken time
To simply be a human being.”