Usually when we talk about play, we think about fun amusing activities during which children are left free to do as they please. And yet the Convention of the Rights of the Child (art. 31) states that play is a basic need to which children are fully entitled. So, this must mean that play is not only just a question of entertainment. Although playing is an important and necessary activity, there is a side to it that goes much deeper than that. It is no coincidence that play was a frequent topic explored in Maria Montessori's papers from various different angles.
What exactly is play?
The word “play” is used to indicate a variety of different experiences: there is exploratory play, free play, structured play, role play, pretend play and many other kinds as well. Clearly, play is highly dependent on our environment and the materials available to us (the house, park, wood or town square all offer different play options), but it is also bound up with the people around us, whether these be grown-ups or peers.
Children deploy a vast array of skills throughout the whole play experience. When kids play together, they are not just having fun, they are building up communication and cooperation abilities.
A simple game like hide and seek helps them to manage a variety of disparate faculties, allowing them to hone their minds as they work out what others might see or think. It also forces them to devise strategies. Play is an activity that not only requires concentration, but also respect for a set of rules that children impose on each other and then comply with on a conscious and subconscious level. It is an engrossing activity that enables children to understand more about themselves and others, and to gain insight into the world around them.
What does research say about play?
Neuroscience clearly demonstrates that healthy brain connections are extremely reliant on early experiences in life. It is crucial for infants to engage in quality social interaction with their family members. Research has repeatedly shown that play is not just a question of fun and amusement. Play is not only a powerful tool which keeps children healthy and happy, it also aids them in the development of skills that will prove to be useful in their childhood and adult life alike.
In the light of all this, it is vital to make sure that play acquires a central role of the learning process for children and this doesn’t only go for parents at home, but also for teachers at school. We must realise that learning can take place through free play (this is often what happens at home with the family) and via play activities which have been either arranged by the adult or imposed by the environment (set up by the adult in order to achieve set learning goals).
What is play according to Maria Montessori?
Maria Montessori's viewpoint of play varies according to the circumstances. Most of her thoughts on the matter relate to school learning, but we can use her teachings to good effect in the home too. One of the most important points that she made was that we should use the word “work” rather than “play”, not because she undervalued it, but rather because she recognised its immense worth. She had noticed in her schools, though, that children were not keen on toys that had no precise purpose. They preferred to engage in real activities!
Instead of playing in a pretend kitchen, children would rather handle real food and water and try things like pouring water into a glass to drink.
Indeed, her experience with children caused Montessori not to be overly enthusiastic about artificial play and games of fantasy; she firmly believed that, if properly guided, children were able to do real activities and she favoured imagination over fantasy by a long way.
The Montessori approach asserts that it is easier for children under the age of 6 to understand, process and relate to things in their immediate surrounds because they discover and become familiar with the world through all that they can actually see, touch and smell.
How often have we seen our children playing “at being teacher” or “being mummy or daddy”, or enacting other real-life situations? They watch what is happening around them and they try to reproduce it. This kind of play is distinctly different to that based on fantasy which is not underpinned by reality (fairies, super-heroes, etc.). In fact, children are often prone to unfounded fears or exhibit aggressive behaviour, a state of affairs fuelled by fairy stories or tales of fiction. And when kids play up for these reasons, grown-ups don’t always understand the problem because they are not really aware that before the age of 6, a child's mind cannot yet tell the difference between the real world and an invented one.
“[The young child] cannot distinguish well between the real and the imaginary, between things that are possible and things that are merely 'made up'." – Dr Montessori, Times Education Supplement, 1919
Obviously, this does not mean that we should only have structured activities or Montessori activities at home. Quite the opposite!
But we should be aware that everything that children receive and observe affects them - and this includes play!
Games, toys and books must be chosen with care, bearing in mind the various stages of child development.
One of the things closest to Maria Montessori’s heart was that children have a suitable environment that would allow them to discover their real interests and be free to follow their own true path. It's only by following their own interior desires that children will be able to engage in activities that genuinely stimulate them, allowing them to focus and feel happy at the same time, because “play is a child's job” after all!