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Listening to Play

Updated: Nov 30, 2020

Somewhere along the first minutes of introducing my class on developmental psychology to a new group of students, I ask them to close their eyes and try to remember a moment from their childhood in which they were happy. The answers include memories of playing with friends, playing in the nature, playing in the neighborhood, playing in a backyard, playing inside an apartment: the times when they were in the moment, were engaged in play and were free, and hanging out with their loved ones. I find these responses very powerful, with the window they provide into what children find meaning and joy in, showing how central the time and space for play is.

The reconstructed memories of adults might not be a convincing enough tool for some firm believers in the collection of evidence and that they might still want to seek an answer through stimulus-reaction frameworks. So, if one needs another path to understand and further elaborate on what makes children happy, and turn to children, it won’t take them long to observe and understand that the answer is playing. If you ask children, they can tell you a lot about the joy and pleasure that play gives them: in fact, any activity, insight, or observation that they are conveying will go through the filter of fun, and places will get an evaluation based on their conduciveness for or association with play. While children have this desire to play in every opportunity, they also continue growing up in the context of endless expectations from them as to how to behave, what to do, how to do it, when to do it, and for how long. Expectations, or tasks, might be culturally and contextually shaped: it can be about taking responsibilities within the family, succeeding in school, being involved in extracurricular activities, or a combination of all. Children find themselves continuously becoming part of activities and practices that are mostly set up for them rather than with them. In most cases, children’s ideas and input are not considered in making decisions that are directly concerning and affecting their environments, their development, and eventually their future. They are complying with certain expectations and rules for in most cases even the simplest explanation or rationale isn’t provided. It’s indeed a part of ‘growing up’, that one needs to participate in society, take on certain roles, learn how to take responsibility, commit to ideas, activities, roles, people, studies. As adults, we tend to take for granted that it comes to children naturally to plan together with us what they cannot fully perceive and make sense of, and leave their expectations and desires at the moment to focus on some future goal.

This is not to say that children do not get an invaluable contribution for their development in being involved in the processes and events within their communities, but it is especially to point out how children are mostly allocated to the activities and places, rather than having the chance to coming to be actively involved in elaborating and discussing those together with other people and children who are also participants. This ends up reproducing the exclusive structures in the community and broadly in the society in ways that we might not be even able to acknowledge. Parents and teachers that I talk to express how they believe in certain standards that they set for and expect from children, which in the case of parents’ enclose children’s access to free time and in the case of teachers’ enclose children’s access to space and free movement. Maybe it is due to the relationship dynamics that come with the inscribed discourses and practices around authority, discipline, and order that position the parent and the child or the teacher and the child in conflict over most daily conduct and activities. Parents might prioritize structured extracurricular activities over free play, believing that their children need to attend to those for personality development, even when children are not interested in them. They might believe it’s more beneficial for their personality development if they can commit to certain things. Teachers might prioritize finishing assignments over thirty minutes of free time or in-class activities, believing that this is needed for students’ academic development. The most intriguing part, however, from the accounts of parents and teachers come from how they are not able to make sense of their expectations when they put those under critical light, and reflect on how they interact with children. They can see that some requests or demands sound and feel random and unfair. Any person who live and work with children know the overwhelming mental and/or physical energy this requires as well, and is aware of not having the time or space for this sort of reflection, and mostly due to structural constraints. The parent has to work and leave the child to the most affordable place possible that will also help prepare the child for the rigorous academic system. The teacher has to prove in numbers to the school administration that their class is succeeding or identify the reasons why it is lagging behind the average, which necessitates the prioritization of standardized measures of student performance over certain subjects. Under such circumstances, how is one to focus on the contribution of that thirty minutes of self-expression, socio-dramatic play, or dancing to a child’s development and well-being? These systemic pressures cause the caring adults to not hear children, or sometimes not even turn to listen to, with the fear of falling behind, missing out, or facing what they already know by instinct and lived experience.

When children ask if they can play, they are not only asking for exercise, fun, and refuge but are asking for their essential right to citizenship and participation, as reminded by Juster and Leichter-Saxby (2014). Their article also reminds us that even when a play does not result in outcomes that we’re looking for, through the sense of agency that it allows children to experience, it constitutes a tool through which children engage with cultural contexts and ‘…create social capital and personal voice’ (2014). Listening to children will be a step forward in bringing that voice to the world.

Juster AH, Leichter-Saxby M. Citizens at Play: Children’s Participation through Community-Based Opportunities for Child-Directed Play. Global Studies of Childhood. 2014;4(2):77-88.

Bengi Süllü is from Turkey and is currently a doctoral candidate in Environmental Psychology and teaching fellow at The Graduate Center, City University New York.

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