Child holding an armful of kindling. (Photo credit Zavellennahh Huscroft Young)

Playing is learning

“Mom, I don’t even need my toys. I just need a sharp little axe and some wood.”

Submitted by Zavallennahh Huscroft Young

Grandma called yesterday, asking if my 7-year-old son could make her some kindling and bring it over so she could make a fire. So I sent him to the basement, set up with gloves, a hatchet, and a stack of wood ready for chopping. (Note: We have taught our kids how to properly and safely use axes, knives and other tools from their earliest years). I then went upstairs to do important mom work and left my son in the basement to do his important grandson work. At first, I heard the tell-tale “thwack” of wood being split into kindling, but soon this turned into other sounds which were harder to identify and continued on for quite some time. And then a cheery little face appeared at the top of the basement stairs, asking for a snack. Down went the boy and the apple; I couldn’t contain my curiosity so descended for a peek. Rounds and split pieces of wood had been fashioned into a table, a chair, plus a couch for his sister and a custom designed axe rest and kindling splitting jig. Eventually, he finished his snack and got back to work on the kindling. Later on, as we were driving to Grandma’s house to deliver the box of kindling, my son said “Mom, I don’t even need my toys. I just need a sharp little axe and some wood.”

I read a fascinating and alarming article* this week, which took an in-depth look at the subject of free play in children’s lives, and the deficit of it in more recent years. According to psychologist and researcher Peter Gray, “Beginning around 1960 or a little before, adults began chipping away at that freedom by increasing the time that children had to spend at schoolwork and, even more significantly, by reducing children’s freedom to play on their own, even when they were out of school and not doing homework. Adult-directed sports for children began to replace ‘pickup’ games; adult-directed classes out of school began to replace hobbies; and parents’ fears led them, ever more, to forbid children from going out to play with other kids, away from home, unsupervised. There are lots of reasons for these changes but the effect, over the decades, has been a continuous and ultimately dramatic decline in children’s opportunities to play and explore in their own chosen ways. Over the same decades that children’s play has been declining, childhood mental disorders have been increasing…The decline in an opportunity to play has also been accompanied by a decline in empathy and a rise in narcissism.” The article continues on to conclude that learning and playing are not opposite sides of a dichotomy, but rather, that play is absolutely essential to all learning and for healthy emotional and psychological development.

According to my son, he just played all morning. But according to research, his unsupervised free play is helping him learn and grow in all the most important ways; creativity, problem-solving, resilience, empathy, and a healthy dose of good old fashioned fun.

Zavallennahh Huscroft Young is a mother, co-facilitator at Kootenay Nature School, and a professional musician.

*https://aeon.co/essays/children-today-are-suffering-a-severe-deficit-of-play

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