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How To Ruin Children’s Play: Supervise, Praise, Intervene

By Peter Gray, PhD

My soul has been stirred by many of nature’s wonders— by orange and yellow leaves sparkling in the autumn sun, by mallards landing softly on still waters at dusk, by clouds drifting by as I lie on my back, gazing upward. But of all of nature’s scenes that I have enjoyed and pondered, none have enthralled me more than those of children playing— playing on their own, without adults guiding or interrupting them. Intervening in children’s play seems to me to be like shooting those mallards that are landing on the water.

My words are poor substitutes for the actual scenes, but let me try to convey two examples that have moved me more than any poetry. There is nothing special about these examples; they are like play everywhere. What made them special to me is that I took the time just to watch and enjoy them, to look at them as some people listen to concerts or admire great paintings. I report on them here partly in an attempt to convey their beauty, but also to point out how adults might well have ruined them by supervising, praising, or in other ways intervening, as happens all too often today.

Both of these examples happen to have occurred at the church to which I belong. I present them in the present tense in the attempt to paint a verbal portrait.

Example 1:

A Game of Keep-Away

The Sunday service has ended. Bored by the adults’ coffee hour, I go upstairs to the large, open room where children sometimes play while they wait for their parents to finish socializing. Fourteen children—of both sexes and ranging from 3 to about 12 years old—are playing keep-away with an inflated ball, about twice the diameter of a basketball. Fourteen human bodies of greatly different sizes are moving rapidly about, each following a rather random path, at its own pace, with its own flair. Yet, somehow, all fourteen blend together, accented by the bright green ball, into a single fluid organism.

I feel that I am watching a beautifully choreographed dance, but there is no choreographer. Nobody dominates; nobody is left out; nobody bumps into anybody else; nobody complains; all of the shrieks are of joy. Every child who wants the ball receives it for a fair period of time. The older players dribble the ball as they run with it, daring the others to steal it; the younger ones just run with it until they pass it toward the outstretched arms of an eager teammate.

The 3-year-old runs joyfully in circles, his arms sometimes flailing above his head, showing no interest in the ball at all, just delighted to be out there running with these amazing older kids. Despite the differences in age, size, and ball-playing ability, all of the players are treated as equal—as equally worthy, equally deserving of having their needs met. The game goes on like this for the entire twenty minutes that I can stay and watch. As I watch I learn lessons of movement, rhythm, coordination, and unselfish self-expression, in which joy comes from anticipating and fulfilling the needs and desires of the others. I see democracy, in its most ideal form, in action.

The kids and I are lucky that no other adults are paying attention and that my attention is inconspicuous. I’ve often seen such games ruined by well-meaning adults who intervened— for the sake of safety, or because they believed that someone was being treated unfairly, or because they believed that they knew better than the children how to make the game fun for children. Attentive adults can ruin games even if they don’t intend to intervene. Children perceive them as potential enforcers of safety, solvers of conflicts, and audiences for whining, and this perception invites the children to act unsafely, to squabble, and to whine. Play requires self-control, and the too-obvious presence of adults can lead children to relinquish their self-control.

Example 2:

Making a Christmas Ornament

I am helping to manage the church’s annual “Green Christmas” celebration, at which church members of all ages create earth-friendly decorations, wrapping papers, and gifts. I’m in charge of the natural ornaments table, which contains such materials as pinecones, milkweed pods, and seeds and shells of various colors and shapes. The table also contains hot-glue guns, which people can use to fasten the natural materials together to form ornaments for their Christmas trees or statues for their tables. Most people are doing this rather quickly, eager to get something made and to move on to another table so they can complete the rounds. They make big, flashy ornaments, using many materials, but they put relatively little care into making them. As they work, they laugh and joke with others around them. Those people are not, in my view, playing; or, if they are playing, their play lies in their socializing, not in ornament making. They are making ornaments just because that is what they are supposed to do at this table. But one little boy, who appears to be about 4 or 5 years old, takes an entirely different approach.

He ignores the hustle and bustle around him and allows himself to become completely absorbed by his project. On his own, he decides to glue small, round white beans onto a large pinecone in such a way that each of the roughly 60 lobes of the pinecone will have exactly one bean precisely in its center. He doesn’t announce this to anyone; he just starts doing it. His expression is one of intense concentration. Using the glue gun, very carefully with his little hands, he squeezes a single tiny drop of hot glue squarely onto the center of one of the pinecone lobes and then, before the glue hardens, places a bean ever so gently on the drop of glue. It takes him about half an hour to finish his task of gluing a bean onto every lobe. During this entire time he does not move from his work place. He does not say a word, and nobody—I am pleased to observe—says a word to him.

As I watch, a woman asks me if I think it is safe for such a little child to use a hot glue gun. I tell her that I have been watching him and he is being more careful than anyone else at the table. There is no need to caution him or to do the gluing for him. The former would interrupt his concentration and the latter would spoil his play completely. I am grateful that the boy’s parents and all others who see him are wise enough to leave him alone at this activity. Imagine all the ways that an over-involved adult could ruin his play. The adult could deprive him of the challenge by kindly doing all the difficult or “dangerous” parts for him, distract his concentration with unsolicited advice or cheerful chatter, hurry him along so he could get to other projects but have inadequate time for this one, or praise his work in ways that would shift his attention away from the process (which is most important to him) and toward the product (which is less important). Because nobody disturbs him, this boy experiences sublime solo immersion in artistic creation, and I experience the joy of watching him and learning from him. I learn lessons of self-determination, concentration, persistence, and painstaking craftsmanship.

Many years ago, Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist and a great observer of children’s play, wrote that at play a child “behaves above his daily behavior…as though he were a head taller than himself.” I would add that the same is true for adults. We are all at our best when we are playing. Let us learn to cherish play, in others as well as ourselves.