Learning Through Play

[This article was written by Rahima Baldwin Dancy and covers Waldorf indications for early childhood development, the stages of creative play, and how they contribute to learning. It first appeared in Mothering, Winter, 1988 and has been updated for this posting. It builds on her article Learning By Imitation.]

A baby happily throws all of her toys out of her crib. A toddler hides behind a napkin and plays peekaboo with his sister. A three year old finds an old hat in the costume basket and becomes a train engineer by turning over every chair in the house. A five year old tells her friends, “You be the sister and I’ll be the mother and Heather can be the dog.” All of these children are learning about the world through play, which has been called “the work of childhood.” By understanding the stages of play and its importance for young children, you will be able to enhance your child’s imagination and experience of the world through creative free play.

The Importance of Play
Play is defined by noted psychologist Bruno Bettelheim as any activity characterized by freedom from all but personally imposed rules (which are changed at will), by freewheeling fantasy involvement, and by the absence of any goals outside of the activity itself.1 Such imaginative play, which is an expression of the child’s inner nature, has long been recognized as being important for healthy development. In fact, it can result in a wellspring of creativity that continues into adulthood and is found in artists, inventors, musicians, and adults who still know how to play. Creative free play is an expression of the magical world of early childhood; it is not the same as the experience provided by “educational toys” designed to teach concepts like “triangle” or “heavier and lighter.”

Play is also the way a child learns about the world. In her book Children at Play, Heidi Britz-Crecelius describes how, through play, children learn about all aspects of the world–the cosmos, the elements of earth, air, fire, and water, the animal and plant kingdoms, human beings, and finally themselves. You can help your child be in relationship with the world by exposing him or her to the entire realm of nature–not only sand and water play, but also lots of outside play on windy and rainy days. Slow walks in the park or woods, time to sit by a stream and experience the living world in the tall grass, a chance to dig
–all enhance learning. Children need to have experiences such as skipping stones or throwing a ball or balancing on a teeter-totter. This way, their later study of trajectories or levers in physics will be grounded in experiences from real life.

For young children, “looking at something” means touching it. Actually moving and handling objects is much more important than watching them on television, no matter how educational the program may be. Similarly, watching little figures do something on a computer screen is not nearly as valuable as manipulating the objects themselves. By nature, young children are constantly in movement and need the opportunity to express their ever deepening relationship to day-to-day life through their play.

The Stages of Play
The tiny baby plays unconsciously with his or her hands and feet. Grasping soon follows, and the child learns that the wooden ring can be caught hold of but the brightly shining moon cannot. These first attempts at grasping objects become an adventure in learning about near and far, attainable and unattainable. An infant’s first movements to grasp objects place the child in relationship to space and time and all the laws of nature. Gravity is fun when it causes the spoon to disappear over the edge of the high chair, but not as friendly when it means rolling off the bed!

Toddlers learn much more about space as they begin to move through it, delighting in the “play” of running, jumping, climbing, walking on tiptoe, or whirling around and throwing themselves on the couch. Such activities are satisfying in themselves for toddlers who are just learning what their bodies can do. They do not require a purpose other than the joy of movement for its own sake.

The element of fantasy first merges with the joy of movement sometime in the third year, when the child begins to delight in hopping like a bunny or riding a stick horse. Between two and three years of age, the child experiences a change of consciousness with his or her first powerful identification with the self. The child’s experience of himself or herself as a separate person (what we sometimes call “The Terrible Twos”) is an exciting time. Distanced from the world in this way, the child now has the capacity to develop the faculties of memory and thinking. At the same time that children begin to separate from the world in thought, they are able to reunite themselves with the world of fantasy.

After the age of three, a child will take whatever is at hand and magically transform it into something to play with. A stick of wood might look like a boat from a bedtime story. Soon the dog comes along, so the stick becomes a bone and is given to the dog for supper. This suggests making supper for the doll, Jennifer, whereupon the child begins gathering ingredients to bake a cake. Play, at this age, is like a “stream of consciousness” story in which children go from one activity to the next, depending on what catches their attention and the associations it suggests. The child of three or four can also concentrate deeply on a given play scenario for long periods of time.

Because the young child is so open and so imitative, play will reflect everything that is in the child’s immediate surroundings–the emotions, gestures, and vocal inflections, as well as the activities. After watching a carpenter hammering nails, your child may line up some “nails” and pound them with the same gesture and the same feeling that the carpenter used. Similarly, if you are in a bad mood when you clean up, you may see your child tossing things around in the same way. In their play, children reflect everything around them.

Play is the child’s way of assimilating the world that he or she experiences. Through play, the child can”try on” being a nurturing person or a superhero, a carpenter or a cook, a dog or a bear. The child can also act out in play the tornado warning that caused so much anxiety the night before, or the emotions aroused by having a new baby in the family.

By the age of five, play takes on a more intentional quality, and “let’s pretend” becomes the means for acting out what is in the imagination. A group of five and six year olds may spend 20 minutes planning who will be what and what will happen–and perhaps never get around to doing it! Friends become very important at this age, and costumes are especially suited to their dramatic play.

Ways to Encourage Your Child’s Creative Play
The most important thing you can do for your toddler is to “childproof” your house so that your child can explore freely while being close to you. Set aside a low kitchen cupboard or drawer and fill it with pots, lids, wooden spoons, measuring cups, and other cooking items to play with. Household objects provide a much richer experience for a child than purchased toys do. In addition, some of the following suggestions for three to six year olds can be started with a younger child:
Create an Inviting Environment. The way toys are displayed will determine whether or not they are played with. Putting toys on shelves each night and setting up “scenes” on the floor or on a low table–perhaps a farmyard or several small dolls and a boat–will invite your child to play with them. Remember that much of play is suggested by what the child sees.

Having activity areas can also encourage play. Putting the dolls in their beds each night and waking them up in the morning can help them be livelier companions in play. Or you can create a kitchen area with a simple stove-sink combination–a wooden box with a hole cut in it for a metal mixing bowl sink and painted burners. Toy dishes do not last very long; try getting wooden bowls and small pots from a secondhand store.

You might also create a workbench area, an art area, a costume corner. Since your child will probably want to be near you much of the time, activity areas are best set up in various rooms rather than off in a secluded “playroom.”

Use Toys that Encourage Imagination. The less formed a toy is, the more possibilities it has for engaging your child’s imagination. For example, a soft doll with no mouth can be happy, sad, or angry, depending on the situation. Standup dolls made out of felt and wool to look like nonspecific characters–an old man, a baker, a princess, and so forth–lend themselves to creative play in a variety of ways; Darth Vader or Sheera, on the other hand, have narrowly fixed natures and ranges of activity. Rudolf Steiner says that, as the muscles of the hand grow strong through use, so is the brain exercised by toys that require the child to complete them in the imagination.2 Thus, toys made of natural materials such as wood or knitted wool yarn, which suggest the “archetypal” truck or cow or squirrel, allow the child the greatest scope of imaginative interaction.

Objects from nature make excellent toys because they can be used in so many ways, and they are inexpensive. Small baskets of pinecones, shells, stones, chestnuts, and bits of natural wood can be used as a myriad of things in creative play. One of the best investments of time is to cut “blocks” from tree trunks and branches of various sizes. Unlike geometric blocks from the store, these blocks will be used for much more than stacking up and knocking down. Because of their slightly irregular qualities, they are easily transformed into numerous props–a can of cat food, a flying saucer, a bird, or a person.

Pieces of cloth can also be used in many ways. Long lengths of fabric or sheets can be stretched over furniture to make a house or a cave. Or they can be stretched over trestles or blanket stands, which are easy to construct.3 Small pieces of cloth can be used to wrap up the baby or to define a space for a play scene in which your children can move figures in an unfolding story of their own making.

Lengths of cloth made into simple costumes will also encourage creative play. By sewing elastic along one side of a rectangular cloth, you have a cape, which can also be worn as a skirt. Crowns can be cut out of heavy paper and covered with aluminum foil, or cut from watercolor paintings done on stiff paper. A braid may be turned into a crown by sewing the ends together with a lenght of elastic. Such crowns can be used to hold on “veils,” formed from lengths of sheer material such as chiffon or lace. Add some shoes, gloves, and hats from secondhand stores, and your children will be all set!

Encourage your Child’s Contact with Nature. Young children are so full of life, and they see everything as being alive–up until puberty, according to Piaget! Value your child’s outside play. Provide rain gear as well as snowsuits and go to the park. Look at your yard from a child’s perspective: where can a secret hiding place be, a garden, a place to dig holes? Also bring nature into your home: on a table, arrange items you have collected on walks, and change your arrangement with the seasons. Be sure to provide opportunities for sand and water play, for planting wheat grass in spring, for watching a caterpillar turn into a butterfly.

Turn off the TV and Stimulate Imagination through Stories. Watching television takes time away from real play and encourages passive entertainment rather than active creativity. It sabotages the imagination by providing images along with the story, requiring no inner activity and thus no way for children to make the story their own. Being imitative, children will play out what has caught their attention: the chasing, the shooting, the car crashes. Play inspired by television tends to mimic the frenetic movements seen on the screen.

Stories that are told or read, on the other hand, require the child to form personal images of what is happening. This inner activity carries over into creative play. After a few weeks (or months) of repeating the same story over and over again, you can provide simple costumes or props for acting it out. A favorite of three and four year olds is the Scandinavian tale of “The Three Billy Goats Gruff,” which can be acted out for weeks using a “balance board” placed across two chairs. Simple fairy tales and stories with repetition, like “Goldilocks” or “The Little Red Hen,” are suitable for three and four year olds. Complex fairy tales are best left until age five or six. Bettelheim reports that young children prefer fairy tales over all other kinds of literature.4 When they are told calmly, without emotional dramatization, fairy tales are especially nourishing to the developing consciousness of the young child.

Invite Other Children over to Play. Before the age of three it is difficult for children to play together. Their imitative nature makes them want whatever another child picks up. However, after three, a child begins to be ready for social play, especially if the environment is inviting. By age five, playmates are a must.

Value Play over Early Cognitive Learning. If children are taught to read and compute early, they are deprived of this important time for creative free play. More importantly, their consciousness changes. They become more awake and leave the magical world of early childhood prematurely, a year or two (or more) before they would have outgrown it naturally. There is no “critical time” to learn reading; the interest comes around again, and in fact increases when the child is not taught to read at age five. In considering a preschool or kindergarten for your child, ask about its orientation toward play and cognitive development. By postponing early academic learning, your child will be able to benefit fully from the magical years of early childhood.

Play is the most appropriate mode for a young child’s learning. It is a necessary step for healthy physical, emotional, and mental development. Encouraging childrenl’s creative free play is one of the most vital contributions you can make to their education and development during these crucial early years.

1. Bruno Bettelheim, “The Importance of Play,” Atlantic Monthly (March 1987): 37.
2. Rudolf Steiner, The Education of the Child (NY: Anthroposophic Press, 1981).
3. Freya Jaffke, Making Soft Toys (Millbrae, CA: Celestial Arts, 1981), p. 39.
4. Maryjo Kochakian, “Fairy Tales Allow Kids to Grapple with Good and Evil, says Psychologist,” Ann Arbor News (5 July 1987).