Alfred Adler once said, "Play is a child's work, and this is not a trivial pursuit." He's right, I think. When children play they are working things out, testing theories, role playing options, dealing with fears, and imagining experiences.
Robin S. Vealey from the University of Ohio-Miami claims that imagining a task is like performing it, that the mind learns new pathways and repetitive imagining blazes a trail for future success. I tell my kids, if you walk down a grassy trail several times, you'll eventually have a path, and if you practice a skill over and over again, that path gets easier to take.
Those days when all the kids want to do is play dress-up and build with Legos, I say, let them do it. They are finding their way through the grassy path of possibilities. Our house has been a zoo complete with stuffed animals in cages and a costumed zoo keeper, an art museum with posters and descriptive labels, a reenactment of Gilbert and Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance, a vet's office, a scientist's laboratory, a bakery, a detective agency, a hiding place for Jews in WW II, a modeling agency, an opera (there were years of Meg singing instead of talking), and the list goes on, but you get the picture.
So how does all this play really make a difference? Well, in my family it turned out like this:
Melissa, our 14 year old is "freakishly coordinated," as her older brother says. Given a little bit of time, she can do anything in the physical realm (OK, she can't fly, but...). She can climb the rock wall in our sanctuary in no time flat, she roller blades and plays hockey (backwards, while texting), at flags practice she's the one who can do maneuvers even her coach finds difficult. And my response? She's got natural ability but she also has not been sitting at a desk half her life. She's been out playing those nine years of elementary school. She's developed the skills and the confidence to try things and succeed.
When Meg started taking voice lessons a couple years ago, the teacher commented on how mature her voice was. She asked if she'd been taking voice lessons all along. No, but she's been free to sing and experiment with her voice anytime she wanted since she was born. When Meg joined a theater group two years ago, she became a leader and an example of a hard-working, talented performer. Had she taken any classes? No, just ballet when she was really small, and no acting classes of any kind. BUT she lived the theater everyday at home, even trying to corral neighborhood kids into creating a production of Treasure Island in 6th grade.
Peter chose to spend most of his time reading and exploring on the computer. That made him an expert at learning. He knows everything, as his sisters say, and if he doesn't know it, he knows how to find it. He's also discovered the fun of singing, theater, and dance, thanks to Meg. Now he's at college, on a full ride scholarship, choosing which electives he wants to add to his intense list of classes.
The freedom to play allowed my kids to bloom and blossom without the constraints of crowd control or peer disdain in the schools. They were allowed to truly become who they are. Yes, play is the main job of a child, and it seems all that work is paying off.
photos: Missa as Buzz Lightyear, Missa swinging from the harness of the rock wall, Meg as Gabriella in High School Musical, Peter and Meg in A Christmas Carol
Jena began homeschooling in 1994. Her three children are now teenagers; one is graduated and attends the University of Chicago on a full ride scholarship, the next one is 16 and pursues life without school in the arts, and the youngest is a freshman, trying out public school for the first time. In 2005 they bought a 7000 square foot church building and converted it into their home. You can read more about their adventures on her blog, yarns of the heart.