By Kim Hunter
Play is the young child’s work and is inspired by the adult’s work.
When adults are engaged in real work, children become absorbed in active play.
Grasping this foundational pedagogical truth was transformational for my work with young children. Ideally the work we are doing is accessible for the children to join if they choose. Working alongside the adult at first and naturally becoming more independent as their development and skill allow. “Real work” as I define it, is NOT on a screen or telephone. The work is a clear task with outcomes that are tangible for the child without us having to explain it at great length.
When I’m with children, in a classroom setting, the work I’m engaged in is always directly related to the class experience, be it indoors or outside. Indoors we might be cutting vegetables for soup, baking, sweeping the floor, fixing toys, sewing, washing by hand; outside the work is tied closely to the seasons, chopping, stacking, and bringing in firewood, planting, weeding, harvesting, raking, building – ideally without power tools – and shovelling snow.
The stay-at-home mom of generations past typically maintained the home while the father worked. Now with both parents working outside the home it is more common than ever to buy prepared meals or dine out, to hire cleaning or gardening help and to buy rather than make the things we need. We have to become conscious of what we are doing for the younger generation to support them to know how to make life work – how to prepare food, clean the home, grow food and flowers – we all need to know, experience and participate in the real work that life requires. Furthermore, working with others on shared outcomes fosters community. In our language this word literally calls us together. I see ‘community’ as a call to us: Come unity!
Ideally, in the early years of life children have the opportunity to contribute in these ‘menial’ tasks which offer outcomes that we all need in order to live comfortably. Children love to be a part of real work, to participate in useful tasks.
One can experience the value of work to the inspiration of play typical in childhood, especially up to the age of 9. In the early years play is naturally born out of imitation; this is changing as in times past work was always being done by the adults in the child’s environment. Now most children are in a formal setting like daycare, preschool or kindergarten in which the care-givers’ main task is to ensure that the children are safe and that their physical needs are taken care of. There is no other work that needs doing, and indeed, most early childhood educators do not understand the value of ‘real work’, this information isn’t included in mainstream teacher preparation.
In my experience the most engaged play comes out of imitation of adult work– cooking, cleaning, holding, ‘nursing’ or ‘feeding’ their doll, building houses or forts out of cloths.
Most parents have experienced times when their young children are absorbed in play, often talking to themselves as they play. “Ah”, says the adult to themselves, “a perfect moment to return that phone call from yesterday.” Within a short time of the adult being on the phone there is often a meltdown in the play and the child is crying or if there is more than one child they are fighting….and the adult on the phone says, “I don’t understand, she/he was playing so well when I called you, I’m sorry, I’ll have to call back later.”
What I see happening in these situations is that the child was feeling safe and comfortable in the environment and began and to play. Part of the feeling of safety was because the adult’s attention was in the child(ren)’s physical space. Perhaps the adult was washing up the dishes or making the bed. When the adult attention is moved to a device it is as though the adult is no longer present, a part of them has drifted out of the immediate environment. If the adult is on a phone, the conversation is often louder than it would be if both participants were in the room, further, it is one-sided and therefore makes no sense to the young child, which in and of itself can make them feel unsettled and insecure.
One way to increase children’s feeling of safety is to be present and engaged in real work, saving the technology for times when the child is not in our care. This alone can contribute to a decrease in anxiousness, nervousness, difficulties with sleep and depression which pervade childhood today.
For culture to continue, the younger generation must know how the daily and seasonal work is carried, ideally they are given the opportunity to see and participate in real work in ways that have meaning and are appropriate to the child’s age.
Although it can take longer to get a task done, if we are following these basic ideals at the child’s pace, the benefits for the child are exponential. They get the adult attention they want and need, and depending on the task, the child may experience a sense of feeling of use, pride in their work, the capacity and active willingness to engage in work, there are many opportunities for learning outcomes. When the work is done in the right way, where the adult is both engaged and relaxed – the child enjoys the process and each time that process is done again, they learn more about that particular task. Often a participated or observed task will come into children’s play as they ‘hard-wire’ what they have learned; they play it to practise it, to explore, to experience what they watched. For example a child who is helping to plant the seeds will develop their pincer grip and eye-hand coordination among other benefits, and they will be so excited to help to water and transplant, weed and harvest and eat what is being grown. The child may find some stones outside and begin to play at planting using the stones as seeds, covering them over with dirt, perhaps singing a simple song that was sung by the adult when they were planting in the garden.
The early years of life pass so quickly, engaging children in tasks that need doing (as examples, the dishes, food preparation, setting the table, planting, watering, harvesting) is both educational and supports them to engage in communal work where their capacities to love their work are enhanced, nourished and appreciated in turn building self-confidence, competence, strength and connection.
In short; Those who sow together grow together.
Kim Hunter home educated her daughter while running a mixed-age kindergarten for 17 years out of her home on five acres of beautiful land on Salt Spring Island, BC Canada. In 2016 she received the Prime Minister’s Award for Excellence in Early Childhood Education, and since then has been travelling, speaking at conferences, post-secondary institutions and to home schooling adults. She also mentors in classroom settings. The trailer for her film Time to Play! can be seen and she can be reached at: