free play advice from 75 years ago

Our adult world owes children many apologies, but one it owes more than any other. The special apology for having intruded on their play.” ~ Katherine Glover and Evelyn Dewer

In a book first published in 1939, Lillian de Lissa asks us to view free play in exactly the way modern neuroscientists and educators are pushing for. We have discovered nothing new and it is incredibly reaffirming to read this message repeatedly across the ages.

de Lissa writes:

“Play, the most characteristic feature of childhood is the child’s natural way of developing himself in body and mind and preparing himself for the serious business of life. It is an activity that arises spontaneously and is similar in type all the world over.” (p.190)

“Not only is play the surest index of a child’s character, it is also an indication of the normality of his development and of his mental and emotional health. Every Nursery teacher should continuously watch her children at play, and should keep some record of it. She should also make as comprehensive a study as she can of play itself, for this will enable her to interpret and evaluate her observations, and give some insight into each child and the kind of help and guidance he needs. It will help her to understand when and how to come forward and when to leave him alone. It will also guide her in her choice of the materials and playthings most helpful for each particular phase of growth.” (p.191)

“Play in childhood is more than mere pastime or a means of recreation. It is the serious business of life. It is in a sense part of the food and drink by which the child builds himself in all-round strength and becomes a poised personality. Provided it is real play, free and spontaneous, initiated and directed by each child himself to meet his own needs – and is not teaching disguised as play – it is the only form of education that really educates in pre-school years. It is through play that the child strengthens and develops his growing body and establishes neuro-muscular co-ordination, control and skill.” (p.191)

To deny a child space or opportunity for free play in all the varied ways necessary to development; to withhold from him toys and material that make play really satisfactory, is just as serious a deprivation to the growth of intelligence and character as lack of food and free activity are to the growing body. It causes psychic malnutrition, and renders the child ill-equipped for the adventure of life. Modern life which crowds people into cities has robbed children of all classes of their natural play, and new means must now be found for restoring it. Large houses and gardens are rapidly disappearing with the result that there is little place for the child to call his own in the modern house or flat, and none where he can play undisturbed and continue his play progressively for days at a time. He is constantly required to give up space to adult needs. Woods and meadows are available only to the country child, and trim parks even when accessible are a poor substitute. Streets are too dangerous to be the play-grounds they once were, while families, large enough to provide playmates of various ages, have practically disappeared. Natural material, too, is less accessible than it once was. Earth, sand, pebbles, seeds, shells are not easily available, nor is there room to-day to keep the odds and ends that once accumulated ion lumber rooms and back-gardens and which led to such valuable play.” (p.192)

“In the report of the White House Conference, U.S.A., it is suggested that there should be a playground within a quarter of a mile of every home with a hundred square feet per child.” (p.193)

de Lissa also quotes others with the exact same message that I’ve been reading in recent research: “Our adult world owes children many apologies, but one it owes more than any other. The special apology for having intruded on their play.” ~ Katherine Glover and Evelyn Dewer: Children of the New Day (quoted p. 193 de Lissa)

“To what extent do the play interests of the child today foreshadow what he will become to-morrow? What influence have social and emotional experiences gained in one’s play as a child upon such qualities as leadership, independence of thought and action, and the ability to get on happily with one’s fellows later on? To what extent are the vocational choices, the hobbies and reactions of the adult, the direct outgrowth of the play preferences of childhood? Much further investigation is [-p.191] needed before these questions can be answered completely, but as we follow the course of development onward, we can see how closely the play life of the individual reflects the development of his whole personality, portrays his interests, his abilities, his past experience. Had we but wisdom to read the signs, we should find in the child’s play the surest index of his character.” ~ Florence Goodenough: Developmental Psychology (quoted pp.190-191 de Lissa)

So why when we’ve known this for so long, and all the neuroscience and modern research is proving it over, are we still having to argue for it so strenuously?!

Ref: Lillian de Lissa (1949) Life in the Nursery School and in early babyhood. Longmans, Green and Co. London; New York; Toronto


About backyardbooks

This blog is a kind of electronic storage locker for ideas and quotes that inform my research... literary research into fiction for young adults (with a special focus on New Zealand fiction). Kiwis are producing amazing literature for younger readers, but it isn't getting the academic appreciation it deserves. I hope readers of this blog can make use of the material I gather and share by way of promoting our fiction. Cheers!
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