Let’s do that now together, and let’s also try to remember what happened to us when we were children. When we asked that question, our mood changed depending on whether the answer was “yes” or “no”, we hoped someone would play with us, and the words “with me” filled our sense of loneliness or made us feel afraid.
This brief exercise is key to understanding what scholars were saying as long ago as the 18th century, like the educationalist and philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau who told us that nature wants children to be children before they are adults.
Has your child ever said to you, “But I am a big boy/girl now!!”, or conversely, “I’m only a child!”?
This means that educational action must take into account the needs and requirements of children, and these are very often embedded in movement, exploration and play. Playing together means building a wealth of cognitive, emotional, motor, social and other experiences. Playing with peers should be a free experience, allowing children not only to enjoy themselves and/or get angry, but also to put themselves to the test, experiment, make mistakes, fall and get up again, in order to “become” what they already are: absolutely unique individuals.
Now let’s give a meaning to these words, to understand more clearly what a child wants to communicate to us when he or she says them.
Play: a recreational experience that allows children to express their individual, spontaneous and intentional activity which is essential to the dynamics of development. (Dizionario di Pedagogia Clinica, G. Pesci - M. Mani Ed. Scientifiche Isfar Firenze).
With me: implies a shared experience. But what are we really sharing? The toy? The play activity? Or what else?
We can thus say that the meaning certainly goes beyond the words themselves as it encompasses gestures, behaviours, emotions, actions and much more besides.
Experts in this field consider play an important factor in development because it allows the child to experiment with and subsequently consolidate new skills, including cognitive and social-emotional skills.
Only if we grasp the above statement will we be able to understand how important it is for a child to play, and particularly to play with other children.
Does playing require any specific skills?
The act of playing requires knowledge, engagement, memory and interaction. All these processes, especially in early childhood, are under constant development. Every experience is an opportunity for children to experiment with new aspects or to consolidate the ones they have already learned. Play becomes an opportunity to get to know themselves and others, it is a space and a time that allows them to understand not just what makes them happy and what doesn’t, but also what they like and what is easy or what is difficult for them.
As play involves connecting with others, it also allows children to test their social-relational skills, providing opportunities for sharing and interacting. Play becomes a real training ground for life skills. It begins with sharing a toy, a space, a role and a rule, but over time this leads to the ability to share materials, friends, a job or a feeling of joy.
And what happens if children get angry while they play? They argue and say things like: It’s mine! I’m not playing with you anymore! What’s happening?
It’s nothing serious. They are experiencing conflict, which is part and parcel of play. Conflict is useful for learning about new kinds of relationships and about behaviours that have to be managed differently, and discovering emotions that need to be listened to.
A great deal depends on how the adults intervene. They might come to the defence of one child or the other, but this would be the wrong thing to do because both players have their own reasons for behaving as they do, and both were driven by their emotions while playing. Getting angry, crying, not playing anymore, always communicates a need. We should therefore embrace the behaviour of both players and, very importantly, offer them different explanations so that they can identify with one of these without feeling that they are at fault, without being reprimanded, or worse, being judged. When human relations are at play, there are no winners and losers, there is in fact a relationship, which means being together and sharing.
How difficult can it be for children to share?
Sharing is a very difficult concept to learn, even when it comes to play activities. Children need to be supported as they explore different recreational activities so that they can experience them and understand what they mean, learning the basic principles, rules, strategies and resources that constitute play. We should also remember that the playmate makes all the difference. All the playmates that children meet have their individual interests, desires and curiosities, and they may be more in tune with some than with others. Children learn to do this too: how to choose who to play with.
And if we have to choose a toy for them, what should we pay attention to?
We should certainly pay attention to the toy’s characteristics. For instance, is the toy designed for individual play, an activity for two, or a group activity? Is it a construction toy or is there a pre-set structured activity and/or “task” to complete?
If we are in a group situation, for instance, we should try to avoid offering toys that can be played with by only one child at a time.
Turn-taking toys or games involve waiting times, but children aren’t always willing to wait for their turn!