The Art of Playing

I heard a comment the other day whilst we were visiting the dentist that made me smile. My eldest daughter has a plate and was there for her regular checkup. The younger two children were with me in the waiting room playing happily with a bunch of mismatched toys that the dentist had in a box. The random dinosaurs, army men and astronauts with missing limbs combined with the ill-fitting lego pieces didn’t seem to deter them from the imaginary world they then created in the waiting room.

The dentist appeared with Rebecca to explain the next steps, only to be interrupted by my littlest daughter asking the dentist if he could “please move over”. Her armless army man was attempting to climb the reception desk and the dentist was standing in the way. He looked down at her and then at my son and commented that it is so refreshing to see children playing in his waiting room rather than stuck in front of a phone or tablet or some other electronic device. He had forgotten what it was like to watch children ‘playing’.

I had never really thought about it before. But it made me smile to hear someone else mention something that seems pretty normal for my three children – the art of playing.

Before I had gone out that day, I had been pretty organised (I don’t always get that right). I had a doctors appointment first and then we were heading to the dentist after that. I packed water, snacks, pencil crayons, and paper. The children brought marbles (the latest craze), various stuffed animals and books. Whilst I was in the doctor’s rooms, they played beautifully in reception whilst waiting for me. When I came out, the receptionist praised me and them saying, “you have great kids, they certainly know how to keep themselves occupied.” It was a proud moment as a mum and it is always nice as a parent to have it reaffirmed every now and again that I am doing something right.

I had never really thought about how my children play before, they just played. Maybe it is partly because my children are at a Waldorf School here in South Africa that I take this for granted. At their school the focus is on experiential and creative learning and they learn to sew, knit, crochet, work with wood, sing, play the recorder, and draw every textbook as part of the curriculum as well as read, write, do maths, geography, history etc. Technology, in the form of computers, is not used until High School (age 14) and the use of media, phones, and computer games are frowned upon before that time. And maybe that’s a good thing.

At home and at school, the children are encouraged to use their imagination. How many parents hear the phrase “Mum, I’m bored!” from their children and race to find a solution? I used to give suggestions of things to do to relieve the problem of boredom, racing through the myriad of toys they have in their rooms and still coming up blank. Then, I attended a coffee morning talk at the school where they were discussing how children play in Kindergarten and what they learn from playing. At this, I learned that it is okay for my children to be bored. In fact, it is healthy for them to be bored. The reason being that from boredom comes great creativity.

So I decided to experiment with this idea and I have been astounded by the playing that has come from their ‘boredom’.

One day, my son came to tell me that he was “really bored”. “That’s wonderful”, I replied. “Be bored, see what comes out of that!” He looked at me as if I had lost the plot and wandered off in the direction of his bedroom. 10 minutes later he emerged wearing what looked like every piece of clothing he owned plus gloves, hat and scarf over a warm jacket. I have to point out that we live in Durban which has a sub tropical climate and even in Autumn/Winter, we have hot sunny days. I asked him casually where he was going. He replied, “I’m off to the North Pole!” “Oh”, I replied. “Aren’t you going to be a bit hot outside with all those clothes on.” Again, he looked at me as if I had lost the plot and said incredulously, “No mum, it’s freezing in the North Pole!”

When children are allowed to develop their imaginations, it is amazing to see the freedom that comes from it. No longer restricted by certain toys or limitations of games in electronic media, they are free to explore the world around them and it is beautiful and fun to watch. Nature offers children a unique experience that modern electronics, as technologically advanced as they are, simply cannot. Technology removes the need for imagination. Playing with sticks and rocks and climbing trees are all part of the daily outdoor play. If it ever happens to be raining, they make forts out of the sofa or the bunk bed. Never a dull moment. Too often as parents we want to run around ‘facilitating’ play. That is fine when they are really little, but as they get older, I don’t feel the need to be there watching everything and helping them to find something to do to occupy their time.

I read an interesting article called “Children in Nature: The Benefits of Outdoor Play” by Tyler Boyce, which I found on As well as the obvious health benefits, he cited many other reasons why our children and us as adults benefit from outdoor play, such as:

Reduction in Vitamin D deficiency
Reduction in Obesity in children
Prevention of myopia or short-sightedness
Reduction in the family carbon footprint by lowering electrical usage
Reduction in electricity bills
Reduction in emotional, social and concentration issues
Reduction in mental stress through laughter

So not just the physical benefits, but emotional, financial and psychological benefits come with outdoor play.

Playing outdoors has a huge educational aspect also. Belac Shep mentions in the same article that “Playing outside teaches a child about nature and the environment; how to play, share, and get along with other children; how to be adventurous and take appropriate risks; how to use reason and logic; and how to be resourceful and use their imagination.” (Ezine Articles)

So the art of playing has a key role to play in the lives of our children but as parents, it is sometimes too easy to put our children in front of the TV or hand them a game to play on an iPad or iPhone as a way to ‘keep them quiet’ whilst we get something else more important done. I have been guilty of this all too often, but have had a few instances where allowing my eldest to google cute tigers brought up images of tigers badly treated in remote parts of the world. A good friend of mine once said something very true, “Once seen, it cannot be unseen.” I think of this as I consider what movies I allow our children to watch, games to play on my iPad or whether I allow them to look up something on the computer.

We have now turned to a very old set of encylopedia’s in my office. Probably terribly out of date but it doesn’t deter us. Recently the children were discussing Leonardo Da Vinci and wanted to know more about the kinds of things he invented. I suggested that we look it up in the encyclopedia. We had so much fun looking at Leonardo Da Vinci, which lead us to other famous artists like Raphael, Michaelangelo. The children know that they are welcome to go look in the encylopedia whenever they want to know more. And I as a parent, am not worried about any other images or inappropriate text they might encounter when I am not there.

I love that my children love books and our bi-monthly trip to the public library to take out 10 books each is the highlight. I often point out that they don’t need to take out 10 books, but why take out 5 when you are allowed to take 10! We have explored various areas of the library and find more and more interesting books that suit their varying tastes each time.

This is the way I was brought up; Trips to the public library, playing outdoors in the fresh air (even in the cold Scottish winter), as well as car journeys where we sang songs, played endless games of ‘I Spy’ or ‘Animal, Vegetable or Mineral’, talked, slept or just looked out the window. We didn’t need a phone, laptop or tablet or anything else to entertain us. Have we lost this now with the new generation of electronic wizards? Do we need to keep up with technology that changes faster than I change my bed sheets? Why do we put so much pressure on our children from such a young age when all they really should be doing is playing?

We forget how much they can learn from the art of playing each day, yet we often forget to give them the time to do it. I have friends who have after school activities every day for their children and wonder why their children are irritable and restless. A family member had a child being treated for anxiety and stress at the age of 11 because the child never had any down time from school, homework and extra-mural activities, but the parents still wondered why.

Modern society seems to strip our children of their childhood innocence so early in life by throwing them into academics early and dumping them into an adult world of stress. Sometimes we just need to take a step back and re-prioritise and allow our children time to be children for as long as possible.

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matthew 19:14)

Allow them their innocence, allow them to discover the art of playing for as long as possible. They grow up so quickly as it is – I know that I want to keep them as innocent and happy for as long as possible. It is difficult at times with busy work schedules and demands on our time as parents, but it is definitely worth the effort in the long run. It is challenging to not turn to electronic devices to fill the gaps, or keep children quiet whilst we get something else done. I am certainly guilty of that at times, but I think balance is important.

I desperately do not want technology to take over our children’s lives, but how do we get the correct balance? How do we ensure that our children discover the art of playing and retain that for many more years to come through everything they do?

About Anne Waters

Anne is a wife, mother and career woman. She is married to Gary and has 3 children. She grew up in Scotland and went to Edinburgh University where she got an MA in Japanese. She moved to London after University and spent the next 10 years working for various Japanese and American companies using her Japanese and gaining valuable business skills. It was in London that Anne met Gary and decided to get married and have children. After their second child was born, they moved to Durban in South Africa, where they live now and where Gary is from originally. Their third child was born in South Africa. Anne is now able to be a full time mother to their three children, whilst teaching Japanese and English as a Foreign Language during the hours the children are at school. Anne was raised in the Church of Scotland and came to the New Church through marriage and has spent the last 7 years in South Africa delving deeper into the writings of the New Church with the support, love and friendship of other like-minded women in the New Church in Westville.

12 thoughts on “The Art of Playing

  1. I’ve been thinking about how your points could be applied to the way adults “play”. After a long/rough day it is so tempting to watch some mindless movie or to internet surf– and I believe that is totally fine sometimes– but I’ve also noticed that when Derrick and I get into a habit of, say shows every evening, our connection weakens. We don’t visit very much together and I feel more distant from him. I wonder how much conversation (real, deep conversation) is lost by adults being too consumed by their technology.

  2. I hadn’t thought of that perspective but you are right. I notice the same thing. In our effort to stay ‘connected’ we are more disconnected than ever. We make an effort not to get into the habit of watching shows or playing with our phones/ipad’s or whatever – but it happens sometimes – because we do find that we move further away from each other and I find that at those times we are more likely to have a disagreement.
    The same is true of children. The more TV and Media they are exposed to the more disconnected with the world they become and their idea of what is ‘real’ becomes hazy. It is at those times we ground ourselves by taking a walk in our garden or playing outside. The other day, Hannah and I made a bird feeder from a nature book we got from the library. It took about 30 minutes or so but we were engaged, happy and now we spend hours looking out of the window to see if any birds are feeding from it. No more requests for movies…

  3. YES!! Here, here, I heartily agree. (-Btw my son attends a Montessori school! I don’t know as much about Waldorf, but I reckon they’ve got some of the same core values 😉 ) And Eden’s comment – YES, to that, too! Todd (especially) and I end up in front of the TV so many evenings, too. Thanks for the breath of fresh air, ladies; for the reminder to pursue more wholesome activities! 🙂 [And such a good point about encyclopedias, too, Anne – thank you! Now if only we had some,…. I wonder if my mom still has their old Britannicas?]

  4. Hey Jenn, thanks for your comment. You are right about Waldorf and Montessori having similar core values for the early years, after that they head in slightly different directions based on their idea education in relation to developmental age. But no matter the school, it is important that children are allowed time to rest and to play. Waldorf feel that hours of homework in the early years of primary school are unnecessary, since children use the playing time after school to absorb and process much of what they have done and learned during the day.
    Finding some encyclopaedias, no matter how old, is a great way to allow children access to a wealth of information without the other ‘stuff’ that comes with it. Definitely worth asking your mom!
    Enjoy playing – my husband and I purposefully have no TV or cable connection at home – so that we make more time for conversation, reading or sleep. Definitely nice to watch something we really want to watch together, but other times it is nice to not have the distraction. I find our various media gets in the way of connection. I understand that I am considered in the older generation (I am in my early 40’s) and that the younger generations use FB and other social media in the same way I used to pick up the phone… but I still can’t help but feel a disconnectedness. Maybe I just need to get with the times….

    1. Heh heh… well, apparently I’m in the ‘older’ generation, too. (I’m 40.) I would love to try not having TV for a period of time, but my husband just isn’t into that! 😀 Oh well. Montessori gives kids the space to play and be kids (i.e. no homework), too. Brilliant! Meanwhile, I must keep my eyes open for encyclopedias. It’s a shame that – even if she still has the Britannicas – I presently live half-way around the world from Mom! I won’t likely be hauling any sets of books back from her place, anytime soon. I hear the call of the thrift shops….

  5. I find it hard too, that we both like watching tv, and have lot of shows and movies that we both like, and so we can get sucked into feeling like it is a connecting thing to do since it’s what we both want to do, and we both enjoy it. It makes it that much harder for me to remind myself that there are so many other options that I also really like that we could do together and would be more bonding and provide for more conversation.

    On the other hand, when things are up and down between us, and we mostly just need time to process whatever thing it is that is hard between us, tv has worked nicely as something to do together without being a pressure to be happy with each other. Not great, but it’s helped pass the time when time was what we needed.

    1. …As much as I like the idea of having a TV-free period (week? month? forever??), I will admit that *I* would miss it, too. I think it gets a bad rap, sometimes (I’m sure my husband would agree!). As with anything else, ‘everything in moderation’….

  6. I enjoyed this article and find ways for kids to go outside when I can…but some of my children really don’t enjoy it at all, so I force them. They also enjoy traditional playing. But, I also find that there is some beautiful artwork and forward moving thought that comes out of the video gaming world. My kids will spend hours adding on their own imaginary parts to these games with each other after bed.

    Any thinking parent can come up with a plan that works for their family and their kids without increasing chances of kids not being angels in heaven after death. Sometimes I think that the standards for perfect parenthood are very very difficult to live up to; say if you are not interested in cooking or your husband loves video games and would never initiate a game of catch. Maybe it’s just me but it’s so much pressure that sometimes I cry. Then I look at my kids and see that whether they play electronically or play traditionally what matters to me is that they play kindly and with wonder at what the Lord has given us.

  7. Thank you for voicing this, Nicole! My child doesn’t love playing outdoors, either, unless he has a novel new toy. I still make him, too (…most days…). He’s one of those who rejoices when it rains: “Yesss! I won’t have to play outside, today.” (I should probably still force him when it’s raining; I used to,… but, then again, I used to go out and play WITH him in the rain.) Thanks for reminding me that ‘perfect parenting’ cares more about our children’s mindsets than whether they’re playing perfectly in nature.

  8. I do not have children of my own- but I teach high schoolers and this topic of technology ruling the lives of the young ones is so real! As teachers- we are pulled to A) include technology in our teaching because that is the way of the world- but also B) help the teenagers learn to make REAL connections, talk to people face to face, and put their screens away! It’s such a battle! The comment you made about the dentist being excited to see children play… what a poignant statement! It’s so hard to hear the reality of the world… Thanks for the article, Anne!

  9. This is a great article! I love that your children can play so beautifully. 🙂 My husband and I catch ourselves thoroughly enjoying “playtime” with our daughter be it playing board games or making fun acting scenes with her Lego’s and it’s so fun to realize in those moments that you spent 2-3 hours away from your technology not realizing that it’s there and super caught up in playtime hahaha.

    Beautiful, refreshing article.

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