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play areas 3 1 - It’s serious – it’s just a game

It’s serious – it’s just a game

By Jennifer Stern

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Families buy into estates largely so that their children can grow up free to play and to explore. And that’s not just because it’s nice. It’s vital. So developers who want to entice families should ensure that they leave lots of ‘room for adventure’.

As technology develops, we keep moving further and further away from our environment. As we gain the ability to do things we could never do before, we also lose the ability to do things that were once second nature. For example, your ancestors were brilliant trackers who could follow a kudu for miles over rocky ground. Yes, they were. If they weren’t, you wouldn’t be here. But we no longer need those skills, so we lost them – ooh – a few thousand years ago.

And, more recently, but still not exactly yesterday, Socrates bemoaned the invention of writing, saying it would ‘create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories. They will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.’ He went on to say that it gave users ‘not truth, but only the semblance of truth’, and that ‘they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.’

Uhm, are we talking about Socrates and writing here, or are we talking about the Luddite fringe whingeing about kids spending all their time playing computer games and watching TV? Both, I guess. And what it all goes to show is that new technology does change the way we perceive the world, how we interact with it, and what skills we end up mastering. But what does that mean in the real world – in the playground and in the classroom? I think it’s safe to say that the increasing use of computers by children is likely to result in learning difficulties to much the same level that reading and writing did in Ancient Greece. By that, I mean it will have an impact – and some of it may well be negative, but some will be positive too. But it’s also almost certain that exposure to electronic gadgets and gizmos should not be at the expense of time out – time outside, play time. Real play time – unstructured, creative, independent play time.

And, let’s face it, that’s probably one of the reasons you moved to an estate – so that your children could ride their bicycles to their friends’ houses and play outside, something we took for granted when I was growing up. As a child I spent ages with my two best friends trying to dam the small stream at the bottom of the road and to build a boat that would carry three children on about six inches of water. The boat was to explore the unknown vastness of Cape Town’s Southern Suburbs in search of treasure. It wasn’t about succeeding – it was about trying out new ideas, working together to figure out the best way to achieve our goals, and to negotiate roles and responsibilities. It was probably more of a role play than a genuine attempt at prepubertal engineering.

And that’s what makes play so important, so interesting and so much fun. While it may be ‘directed’, it’s process-oriented rather than goal-oriented. It was the attempt to build the dam that counted, not actually having a dam. It’s like kittens chasing the spot of light reflected from a watch. It’s not the catching of the spot that matters (although the kitten thinks it is) – it’s the attempt. In the same way that young animals learn the skills they will need to hunt (or in the case of prey animals, to avoid becoming lunch), children’s play is more than just a way to kill time till puberty. It’s the only way we can learn the skills we need to become effective and competent adults.

The early 20th-century Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who pioneered the study of cognitive development in children, claimed that role playing, imagination and play-acting are an essential part of becoming human – of learning to think, and to be creative. Imagination, he claimed, arises from action. This is illustrated by his famous example of a child who wants to ride a horse, but – lacking a horse – picks up a stick, sits astride it and ‘rides’ it. This action – this seemingly meaningless game – is essential for the child to develop the ability to think abstractly. It is a step in the process of separating the idea of a horse from the actual physical 800kg flesh-and-blood-and-bone reality of a horse. Children who don’t get to exercise their imaginations in this way grow up to be … well, let’s just say there is some truth in the idiom ‘all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.’

Now if you look around you will find any number of so-called ‘play’ programmes in which to enrol your children before they go to preschool – there’s Moms and Tots aerobics, art classes, music classes, drumming for kids, extramural languages (one African, one European), maths enrichment, karate for kids and Pilates for preschoolers. And each and every one of them is supervised by an adult. These are all great options for when your children need to be looked after and kept safe. But the best, best, absolutely best way your child can develop into a fully functional adult is through play. They can learn art by making mud pies, learn music by chanting nonsense verse, develop balance and strength by climbing trees, and become numerate by playing marbles. By all means join in because it will be loads of fun – but don’t take over and don’t dictate. Watch and learn. See how those shapeless things created out of mud become intergalactic water pixies (or whatever – the limit is literally the end of the known universe).

So, having made the decision to live in a place where your children can safely explore both their physical environments and imaginations, it’s important to give them space to do just that. First prize is a safe communal place in the estate where all the kids can play. But, even if there is one, it’s worth creating a space for your children that is just theirs, where they can play on their own or with invited friends. Set aside a small part of the garden with no delicate or precious plants or structures – a place where they can exercise their budding engineering tendencies, build a dream world and push the boundaries of reality.

After all, what’s more important: growing beautiful roses or growing beautiful minds?

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