Parents & Play
Educational scholar Ana Marjanovic-Shane has very strong opinions about the state of education in America. Her background lies in the study of metaphor, her original academic interest, but that evolved to focus on the importance of play for children and its implications on their development.
“I was interested in language, how language developed and I started being very interested in metaphor that children produce and understand, because it was almost like a great puzzle,” she recalls. “How is this possible that children create metaphors? I started becoming interested in what’s going on in play because it was so central to the study of metaphor.”
Children are experts at using their imaginations. “Metaphor is central for imagination in my view.” However, she adds, “There is a difference when children in play rename objects and let’s say use a banana as a phone. Although it’s imagination, it’s not a metaphor.”
Marjanovic-Shane started studying play in the 1980s. Metaphor itself isn’t play, she explained to me, but comes out of play. “You need to go through the steps of play in order to get to metaphor. Metaphor is for real and not for play.”
As an example, she says that if a child calls a friend a pig in the context of play, they might be acting out the Three Little Pigs story or pretending to be barnyard animals. That is not a metaphor. But as language further develops, using the term pig against someone metaphorically could be an insult.
“Everything that happens in play is a symbol of something else,” she adds. Play is one developmental step towards full symbolicity, which is metaphor.
So is play only important as a step towards metaphor? Marjanovic-Shane says that the freedom of play is crucial because it helps children to develop their own agency.
“Play is such an activity where there is an ultimate freedom of every player to join or not to join, to walk away, to decide how they want to play, to negotiate with others, whether they can stay together or not, to decide whether something was boring or was very exciting play, whether to participate and or not and why. Play is a very dramatic activity.”
Schools often try to direct or regulate play which is a mistake, because it does not give children the freedom they need.
“There is a difference between education and play. Education is not for pretend. Education is for real, but play has to be a stage where you can try out your ideas: test them, contest them, change everything you have done since yesterday. Some principles of play should be in education, but the purpose and orientation are different.”
If schools are not giving children the freedom and opportunity to really play, what can parents do to facilitate and support our children in play?
Marjanovic-Shane says, “Parents could trust their children and support them in searching for what they like, supporting their free time and freedom to participate or not participate.”
She bemoans the lack of freedom kids have these days. “We live in a country where it’s forbidden for children to walk on the streets because their parents could be arrested, which I find absolutely horrendous. When I was a child, we were not even at home the whole day on the holidays or Sundays. Our parents would tell us, ‘go out’ and everybody’s outside.”
Free-range parenting is defined as parenting where the children are encouraged to be independent without constant parental supervision in ways that are age appropriate and with the understanding that the children could face personal risks.
These days, parents can be arrested for letting a child walk to the store or stay in the car by themselves. When I was growing up in the 80s and 90s, my siblings and I begged to stay in the car rather than run short errands with our mom. We spent hours outside without supervision. We were allowed to walk into town on our own. During full days at ballet, I left the YMCA and walked to get lunch on my own or with a friend. No one looked at me twice.
Times have changed, but not always for the better. Scary as it can be, I want my children to have similar freedom, without anyone facing legal problems as a result, because I truly believe that freedom is crucial for their development as well-rounded people.
Marjanovic-Shane points out sociologist Annette Lareau’s book “Unequal Childhoods,” which studied the children of middle and working-class families. She found that most middle class families parent through concerted cultivation. “The child is your project, to cultivate them to the best of their potential,” Marjanovic-Shane shares. “You are cultivating your child like a plant to become the best in everything.”
On the other hand, working-class families focus on natural growth. They “establish natural circumstances for the child to grow and thrive, meaning they shouldn’t be hungry, they should be safe, they should be having food to eat and shelter over their heads. Everything else is their own. There are a lot of positives in so-called poverty. Children from poor working-class neighborhoods are so full of energy. They hope much more, while the children from the middle class already seem bored and tired, because they don’t know how to manage their own time.”
She adds, “The middle class are concerned about the success of our children in their adult life, so they are pushing down and down and down these academics. Because of that we are actually invading their lives and taking away their liveliness.”
Marjanovic-Shane says, “There are some parental attempts at reclaiming the streets and blocks for children’s play.” She adds that parents can help by “putting a lot of play stuff in your front yard or backyard or inviting neighborhood children to come over. Carving little enclaves of possibility for children to hang out and play with each other, where there is a possibility of non-structured, not directed activity where children can then create what they want to do, out of the eyes of adults.”
Essentially, parents need to learn to take a step back.
I feel that my girls are a bit young to be wandering our neighborhood by themselves at 2 and 4, but I stay out of their way when they are playing inside. I’ll play board games or push them on the swings and listen to their made up stories, but I avoid activity playing with them so they have complete creative control of their play.
Now that the weather is warm, if my older daughter wants to play with her neighbors, I let her walk over on her own (while keeping an eye on her from our doorway). I’m slowly increasing her freedom, while still teaching her how to be safe. When we are in our own yard, I simply open the sandbox, fill the water table, take out toys and park myself in a chair to read my kindle. If they want to involve me, fine, but mostly, they just want to explore their environment on their own.
I’m grateful that Marjanovic-Shane shared her time with me, as well as her expertise on play and education. The ideas she shared are ones I’ve already held dear in terms of my own parenting and I really enjoyed hearing her thoughts on how I can even better encourage the freedom of creative play.