Watch and Learn From a Child’s Play

by Mary Finucane, writer and a psychotherapist.

A few years ago, I was working with a couple who had brought their child into our agency for counseling services. This child, Kayla, was six, and had been living with the couple nearly two years. They were in the final process of adopting her.

On a particular visit, the parents and I sat together and talked about ways for them to connect with Kayla. They talked about the things that interfered with having time together as a family: both parents worked, one was wheelchair bound, and Kayla had a lot of energy. “At the end of the day,” the dad said, “when she asks to play, I have to tell her to go play on her own. I’m just too tired.”  I asked the parents how Kayla played. The mom shrugged and glanced at the dad.

“I’m usually throwing dinner together, he’s taking the dog out, and she goes upstairs and plays with her dolls until we eat.”

We made it a goal for them to observe Kayla’s play in the next two weeks. It could be setting up some play materials in the kitchen while mom cooked, or in the living room while Dad read. And then just paying attention.

At our next meeting, Dad reported grimly, “Well, I saw what she was playing. She set up some chairs and brought a bunch of dolls down. She was the teacher because she always likes to be in charge. Then she said to her dolls, the students, ‘Now listen up!  All the students who are white, sit in the front of the class.  And all the students who are black, sit in the back!’ ” The dad looked distraught. “We’re not racist,” he said, “and I don’t know why she’s got that idea in her head.”  I asked the dad what happened next. “Well, I went over and told her that all the students should sit together, that she shouldn’t separate them like that.”  We talked about the dad’s distress at noticing his daughter’s play, and explored ideas for how to observe and ask questions in a way that would show interest in what she was doing.

Two weeks later, we met again. The parents had another story for me. Mom began, “Last week was Kayla’s birthday, and I drove her to school to drop off cupcakes.  I walked her into class, and she got settled while I gave the teacher the cupcakes and drink boxes.  Then,” she paused, “at the end of the day when I went to pick her up, I was a few minutes early.  I stood outside the door and peeked in to see her.”  Another pause. “All the white students were sitting in the front, and all the black students were sitting in the back.”  She looked at her husband. “I couldn’t believe it.”

With some inquiry, it was discovered that throughout the day, the teacher would send any student who was “not interested in learning” to the back of the class.  She never said, “Listen up!  Black kids back there, white kids up here!” And yet, 6 year old Kayla was astute, and noticed by the end of the day that the result was just this.  And she processed this through her play. She wasn’t playing this way because she was right, or wrong, or racist. But because something was happening in her day and she was trying to take that information and make sense of it.  When she began playing this scene out again in her teaching play, here dad crouched down and asked her some questions.

“Who are you?”

“The teacher.”

“What’s happening here?”

“Well, I’m trying to teach.”

“And who are they?” Dad points to the dolls.

“They’re my students. But some of them are being bad.”

“Which ones?” asked the dad.

“The ones in the back. They don’t want to learn. The ones in the front can sit there if they want to learn.”

A whole door of communication opened between the parents, and Kayla. They were able to use this story to talk with the teacher and principal about how Kayla was experiencing the classroom.  (Not to mention the other children!)  The teacher was assigned a mentor to work on different ways to manage her classroom.

I think of this whenever I feel too tired to play with my daughter for 15 minutes. I think of this whenever I see something that bothers me in her play.  In play, kids don’t have a sense of correct or incorrect. We assign these meanings, not them. Play for them is the equivalent of my spouse and I telling each other about our day. It is storytelling. We don’t aim to leave out the unpleasant details, because, well, that’s what happened. Children experience their world, their emotions, as we experience ours. The difference is that they don’t yet have the language skills that we do to communicate everything they take in. Play can be many things: symbolic, silly, stress-relieving, creative, exploratory. Paying attention to it, participating in it, even if it feels foreign at first, is a both a way to connect immediately, and a building block for down the road.

There is no magic age at which your child will sit down with you over a cup of tea and say, “You know, I have so much to share with you about today.  Let’s me tell you everything I experienced.” It begins incrementally. It begins with interest shown. It begins with asking, rather than correcting. The best part is: it is never too late to begin.

Bio: Mary Finucane is a writer and a psychotherapist.  She lives in Rochester, NY.


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  1. says

    Such a compelling story. Really brings home the importance of play–and the importance of paying attention. It burns me up when I read about preschools (not to mention kindergartens and early elementary grades) disregarding play’s value. Kids wouldn’t have been playing since the dawn of time if there were nothing to be gained from it!

    • says

      so true – and what I can’t figure out and would love to hear your ideas about – is how do we convince parents that don’t get the importance of play? How do we create a cult of play that educators and parents want to join vs. the cult of achievement they’re in? (borrowing from Einstein Never Used Flashcards) The research is clear. Plus, it’s easier, quite frankly, I just don’t get it. Maybe we need to invent a Mother Nature / Play PR firm?

      And, I posted about this on Facebook, too but I saw this tragic racist scenario with American Indian students in southern Utah. It was beyond horrifying,

      • says

        I’m not sure how we can convince parents of the importance of play. Maybe we can bop them over the heads with all that research–playfully, of course! Just the other day, one of my blog readers tweeted this (older) NPR story about how plays encourages important self-regulation skills.

        I just always bring it back to nature. Why do young animals in the wild play? To learn vital survival skills. Humans are no different. Kids play for a reason. Many reasons!

    • says

      wisdom for life, isn’t it?

      I always think of a frightening story my friend Feather Berkower tells where the mom didn’t question why her son said his church teacher was so gay — she just scolded him instead. And, if she’d only asked why he said it, she would have saved him from years of abuse. Her book is really good & I recommend it to everyone -

      Thanks for stopping by, Tom -I love your blog!

  2. says

    Thanks, I love the work that Debbie and Elena are doing – they’re here in Colorado at McRel. But, so far only one school district in the state is doing their preschool play Tools of the Mind curriculum. I emailed Elena recently about some ideas but haven’t heard back yet. The parent feedback I’ve heard is that they don’t like Tools because it doesn’t prepare the kids for the academic rigor (!) of kindergarten. Seriously. In this same district, in at least one elementary school I know about, the kinders only have recess on Friday. !!!! Aaaaah. Makes me nuts.

    Anytime you want to write a guest post, you’re always invited!! :)


  3. says

    It’s curious how child’s mind see things in different light than adults. And yet, at most part, they are honest and you can learn a lot about the world they live in when they are not around you through their play.


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