I sat for nearly three hours in the park near our home last Tuesday. It was a bright clear day and the children from the neighbourhood who had been forced inside for almost two weeks by the freezing weather ran about on the cold ground excited to again be in touch with the world outside.
Across from the bench on which I sat, a high metal sheet has been erected at an angle which some of the children attempted to climb. The little ones longed to climb as the bigger ones did. Clearly unable to manage the ascent, the feelings of one child could be sensed as he looked up into the sun and quivered, then bolted away as though either this one activity was too perplexing or because another idea had struck him. Back to the swings he ran, and in an instant he was sailing up and back by pulling hard on the metal chain just as the downward motion of the swing began. All the while he yelled, "Look how I can push myself! Look at me pushing myself!"
Autonomy and competence
I was struck while watching these children how a sense of autonomy and competence were precious commodities for them. To master a particular action, like swinging or pushing oneself on the merry-go-round, actions that had once required the assistance of an adult, brought sensuous and hard-earned gratification. The word "doing" crossed my mind. How important it was for these children to be able to do things with their bodies or minds, or merely with another person.
There was much more to observe among these handsome two-, three-, and four-year-old children. Some for example, spent an enormous amount of time talking. Even when no-one was around to listen, they jabbered on, practising their words and learning new combinations. They were communicating with themselves. Through their use of language, they were staying in touch with their private worlds, worlds they might not yet be able to speak about, but only speak to. And they were, in a fashion I continually noticed, using language and work to construct bridges between the world they saw about them and the world that had begun to form inside them.
The meaning of laughter
We hear children laugh too, and this is a more complicated phenomenon than we might think, for we love the sounds of children giggling among themselves yet stay away from interpretations of it. But laughter at this age means so many wonderful things in addition to its presence as a sign of pure delight. It means a sense of inner happiness. A child who cannot laugh frightens us, I think.
Something else about the children's laughter: To look at the world and have things strike you as funny implies cognitive maturation and, ultimately, understanding. Incongruity, foolishness, shame, audacity, comedy and ritual are but a few of the concepts that the child must comprehend, if only intuitively, if something is to strike him as funny. Tickling, of course, will do it. So will certain tragic acts. But imagine what it required in the form of psychological and cognitive development for a child to laugh at the sight or sound of something.
Play as a medium
Play is more than an activity. It is a forerunner of work and creativity. It is a medium through which people mature and cultures are made richer, if not healthy. Through play, children come to learn their connections with the past and with the present world of their comrades and elders. Play is their own product, self-initiated and moulded according to criteria children themselves establish and impose. Allow a child to play and one permits her to experience the necessity of both individual action and social control. One permits her, moreover, to experience the meaning of choice and from this the inevitable limitations set by any society, any culture, and indeed by any persons for him- or herself.
Imagination and autonomy, I think, best captures what the children revealed in the park, Their capacity for imagination was practically limitless. They could become anything or anyone; they could be creators of worlds that have never existed, children living free of any temporal order or spatial constraints. This means that someday, they might conceive of and bring forth notions or products or inventions that no-one before them has even dreamed of. No culture survives without these products of imagination, eventually to be transformed by adult intelligence and adult need. Play is, indeed, the very basis of learning. It is a basis which in no way precludes teachers, but which instead, prepares for the entrance into the child's life of teachers and ultimately the wisdom of other human beings.
Extract from an article by Thomas J. Cottle for UNICEF (United Nations Children's Fund)