Friday, February 25, 2011


I have been memorizing this week's quote with my son for the last couple of weeks. It is actually an ancient oath that the young men of Athens took at age seventeen.
Although it was written for a different time to our own, I find some very impressive ideas in this oath to think about today.

                                                         "THE ATHENIAN OATH
We will never bring disgrace on this our City by an act of dishonesty or cowardice.
We will fight for the ideals and Sacred Things of the City both alone and with many.
We will revere and obey the City's laws, and will do our best to incite a like reverence and respect in those above us who are prone to annul them or set them at naught.
We will strive increasingly to quicken the public's sense of civic duty.
Thus in all these ways will transmit this City, not only not less, but greater and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us."

The earthquake in Christchurch New Zealand this past week prompted me to look at this oath through new 'eyes'. 
In Christchurch we have heard of wonderful examples of "the public's sense of civic duty" through individual works and the Student Army's eleven bus strong free labour gifts to the city of Christchurch. There's a real sense too that people in the Canterbury region are "fighting for the ideals and Sacred Things of the City both alone and with many". Here are displays of the deep connection The Athenian Oath describes, between individual people and the corporate people of a city. It could be that most of us don't realize this connection exists until it's called on or awakened through a situation such as the disaster this week in Christchurch.
But back in Athens in ancient Greece, young men were given deliberate attitude training which orientated them to the community, the city and not to self.
There are 5 things in this oath that are worth thinking on.
1.  I like the repeated focus of their oath being on what the individual can do for the city - their responsibility to the city. What a contrast to today's perspective of what the city and others should provide for me or owe me.
2.  The connection they make of personal "dishonesty" and "cowardice" reflecting onto one's city, bringing "disgrace" to the city. It really doesn't enter our heads to think like this today. We have lost the sense that our actions affect our city. We have also lost the feeling of honor for our city which the Athenians had towards theirs.
3.  They had a commitment to the "ideals" and "Sacred Things" of their city and fought for them individually and communally. Do we have ideals and Sacred Things in our city today? It seems we have become so individualistic and caught up in our own personal "ideals" and "Sacred Things", that there is no room left to accommodate 'someone else's'. 
4.  Their respect and honor for the laws of the city and those in leadership over them even if they did not uphold the city's laws. They then convinced and encouraged all to live and work as a contributing member to the city. Possibly today it would be thought ridiculous to honor or respect people over us. For some it is fashionable to criticize the lot of them. In contrast the Athenians are taking up the responsibility to respect and honor their laws, the leaders over them ( regardless of how they behave) and to convince and encourage others to see it as their duty also, to live and work as contributing members to the city. The view here is that you are part of a whole, not autonomous within yourself.
5.  But the last statement entails a commitment to personally contribute to the city in such a manner that you leave it a far greater, 'richer', more advanced, developed and improved city in comparison to how you came into it. Now this is something to think on. 
I remember when I left high school decades ago, my school year all personally put in money and gave the school the gift of two carved wooden gates for the school entrance as a 'thank you' for what they had given to us. Today when my kids have finished high school they are looking for what 'gifts' the school will send them off with.

THISWEEKWITHTHEKIDS Are you bringing up your children with this type of mind set? A simplified version is to ask, Am I bringing up my child to be a contributor to or a consumer of our city?
Have a happy week - and remember those in Christchurch.
Back to the series on play next time.

Thursday, February 17, 2011


This post is PART 2 of a series on PLAY, based on quotes from Stuart Brown's book "play".

"As they grow, kids are often taught out of (an) imaginative approach to play. . . . kids get toys that come straight out of hit movies or TV shows, toys that come with a preset collection of ideas about who the characters are and how children should play with the toy. This kind of preformed script can rob the child of the ability to create his own story. Instead, he is mimicking the expressions and lines that he is expected to say. A chance for imaginative flight of fancy is lost.
Authentic play comes from deep down inside us. It's not forced or motivated solely by others. Real play interacts with and involves the outside world, but it fundamentally expresses the needs and desires of the player. . . . All evidence indicates that the greatest rewards of play come when it arises naturally from within." 
Page 104 "play" by Stuart Brown.

As parents, we have probably all experienced the Christmas or birthday when we were so excited because we had the most wonderful, perfect present for our toddler. Wrapping paper off, box opened . . . and . . . shock, embarrassment, annoyance! The child seems more interested in the wrapping paper or the box than the present. The child is not being unappreciative or disrespectful - they're simply showing that they have a healthy, creative approach to play - a box or wrapping paper after all can be transformed by their imagination into dozens of fantastic things to play with.
We can equally be missing the right perspective on play with our older children too.
"We may think we are helping to prepare our kids for the future when we organize all their time, when we continually ferry them from one adult-organized, adult-regulated activity to another. And, of course, to some degree these activities do promote culturally approved behavior as well as reinforce our roles as "good" parents. But in fact we may be taking from them the time they need to discover for themselves their most vital talents and knowledge. We may be depriving them of access to an inner motivation for an activity that will later blossom into a motive force for life."Page 105 "play".

My hero, Charlotte Mason, knew this same wrong perspective from parents when she wrote over 100 years ago -
"But organized games are not play in the sense we (parents) have in view. Boys and girls must have time to invent episodes, carry on adventures, live heroic lives, lay seiges and carry forts, even if the fortress be an old armchair; and in these affairs the elders (parents) must neither meddle nor make (direct them). They (parents) must be content to know that they do not understand, and ... that they carry with them a chill breath of reality which sweeps away illusions. Think what it must mean to a general in command of his forces to be told by some intruder into the play-world to tie his shoe-strings! There is an idea afloat that children require to be taught to play - to play at being little fishes and lambs and butterflies. No doubt they enjoy these games which are made for them, but there is a serious danger. In this matter the child who goes too much on crutches never learns to walk; he who is most played with by his elders (parents) has little power of inventing plays for himself; and so he misses that education which comes to him when allowed to go his own way and act (play). Page 36-37 "School Education": Charlotte Mason

So, why do we parents "meddle", "organize", "regulate", buy our kids "toys that come with a preset collection of ideas? Four possible reasons ~
1.   It could be that we've been swept along by the advertising of toy companies and want to keep our children materially up with their peers. I hope this one isn't you. Don't be misled by commercial materialism. As a person, your child is far more important than an object showered with state-of-the-art toys. There is always something new 'coming soon', so don't waste the money, because it's fake investment into your child's life.
2.   It could be that we're worried our kids may get bored so we help them along and direct their play. Refer back to "WHAT IS PLAY?" Post 29 - Stuart Brown's 4th point, Inherent Attraction, in his seven Properties or Play - he says that play is a cure for boredom. He is not however referring to parent's organized or directed play but child organized and directed play.
3.   Or we might see it as our role to teach our children how to play. The Charlotte Mason quote above warns that "the child who goes too much on crutches never learns to walk .... and has little power of inventing play for himself .... "  This child misses what is needed to develop normally, fully. A small child when learning to physically walk goes through weeks of independent attempts to walk - falling and all. All children must have their independent attempts and experiments in play too, otherwise we are crippling them.
4.   Another reason is that we worry about the risks when our children play outside parent/adult supervision. They could be heading into trouble... Parents have wrestled with this problem since the beginning of time. We do have responsibilities as parents to guide and instill habits in our children so they know how to live and behave appropriately.
A wise gardener when planting a tree sets it up well - digging around the base, weeding it, pruning it, training it..... but that time period is small in comparison with the years that the tree independently grows and matures in the air, rain and sun. We parents are like that gardener, we need to do the hard work at the start and establish good growing patterns.
"But part of being a parent is learning to accept the limitations of our ability to make our kids safe, successful and happy. We should strive for all these things, but eventually they will grow and learn to be their own (we all hope).
All parents need to foster that internally driven, self directed play that will allow children to become secure and self-confident on their own. There are risks to this sort of play, and the risks should be monitored and minimized. But trying to suppress free play or rigidly control kids' activities poses, in my long-term experience, a far greater risk to their future health, success and happiness." Page 108 "play" Stuart Brown.

The first paragraph of this week's starting quote mentioned another area where children's imagination is stifled in play. It is when play stimulus material is all set up for our children, robbing them "of the ability to create"their own play. It's not just preschool toys that offend and fall into this category. Gaming play, both on line and otherwise are all guilty here. The gamer's thoughts and decisions are continually guided along. This is play that is "forced or motivated solely by others" not individual creativity or the expression of "the needs and desires of the player"that have risen "naturally from within". So how can this pursuit help our children play? Or develop their growing minds and bodies?

THISWEEKWITHTHEKIDS ~ You may need to assess some play practices at your house. If this post has sounded like a big negative to you, and you don't have much of an idea of play alternatives which will benefit your children, revisit some of the great memories you have of play from your childhood, or ask the grandparents for ideas and get the kids PLAYING!

Friday, February 11, 2011


This time last year I wrote my first post on the subject of play.

In the early days of becoming a mum I happened on the writings of Charlotte Mason who gave me a starting philosophy for play. Over the years of reading on the subject, my interest in the importance of the place of play in children's lives has grown. 

Last month, while 'playing' in a great New Zealand summer ~ in the water, on the beach and in the bush, I read "play" by Stuart Brown with Christopher Vaughan ~ a beautiful green and blue small hard-covered book.

As I read my respect for Stuart Brown grew as I discovered his work involved decades of research in the field watching various animals at play, the study of play deprivation and its connection to the development of hard-core criminal behaviour and teaching in the corporate world to win people to the idea of 'playing'.

I hope to write a few posts based on some of the gems I found in this book.

....... the first quality of play that sets it off from other activities is its APPARENT PURPOSELESSNESS. Play activities don't seem to have any survival value. They don't help in getting money or food.......Play is done for its own sake. That's why some people think of it as a waste of time.
It is also VOLUNTARY - it is not obligatory or required by duty.
Play also has INHERENT ATTRACTION. It's fun. It makes you feel good...... It's a cure for boredom.
Play provides FREEDOM FROM TIME. When we are fully engaged in play, we loose a sense of the passage of time. We also experience DIMINISHED CONSCIOUSNESS OF SELF. We stop worrying about whether we look good or awkward, smart or stupid. We stop thinking about the fact that we are thinking. In imaginary play, we can even be a different self . We are fully in the moment, in the zone.....
Another hallmark of play is that it has IMPROVISATIONAL POTENTIAL. We aren't locked into a rigid way of doing things...... The act of play itself may be outside of "normal" activities. The result is that we stumble upon new behaviours, thoughts, strategies, movements or ways of being....... Those insights weren't the reason (we) played, but they arrived as the result of it. You never really know what's going to happen when you play.
Last, play provides the CONTINUATION DESIRE. We desire to keep doing it, and the pleasure of the experience drives the desire....... If something threatens to stop the fun, we improvise new rules or conditions so that the play doesn't have to end. And when it is over, we want to do it again."
Page 17 - 18 "play" : Stuart Brown.

On returning from my holiday 'play', at the northern end of the simple, slow Tutukaka coast, I was stunned on entering our local mall to see dozens of children playing in the centre's play area. Yes, the play equipment is probably professionally designed. Lovely safety flooring is down to cushion any tumble or fall, if that should occur. But these children were not involved in doing what Stuart Brown's book had described as 'play'.
Mr Brown's seven properties of play is the closest he gets to defining what play is, but I think he has given us sufficient to 'play with' and diagnose if a child is playing or not. So let's look at each.

I love this one because it straight from the start reminds us that we don't need to justify play on some curriculum with tangible outcomes, purposes, future developmental steps...... It's simple, unorganized, individual and unique to each person and for each person.

Well, that rules out kids being 'rail-roaded' into playing in teams they'd rather not be in, or forced to play in ways that they don't choose. This point tells us that the player initiates what, when and how they will play. As a parent it is good to have a whole lot of play gear and things for children to go through and get to know - but they are the ones who should choose how and what to play with and when to finish up to move on to something new.
I enjoyed reading the sections of the book "play" where the author relived his childhood of child dominated afternoons of play, where the kids decided what to play and worked out among themselves how the game was going to be played. Children had the freedom to play without guidance, not being affected in any way because no parents or adults were in sight. (It wasn't because they were away at jobs either).
These photos come from a story in the book where a tame husky dog, Hudson, got involved in an experience of a lifetime. It was the end of winter in Canada's north. Waterways were still frozen and therefore polar bears were very hungry by now, waiting for access to their choice salmon once spring arrived. One such polar bear appeared and moved towards a group of dogs of which Hudson was the leader. Hudson bowed, the bear lolloped and in moments the two were literally playing in full happiness. Then the polar bear turned and went back to where he had come from. Brian La Doone, the owner of Hudson, was amazed. The following day at the same time and place, again the bear appeared and went through the play routine. This went on for a week with a gathered group of spectators growing by the day to watch the spectacle. Meanwhile the temperature was slowly rising, the iced waterways melted and the polar bear came no more.

My friend the dictionary tells me that play is an essential and natural part of our life. A right and function that is a component of being a person. Possibly it is like eating, drinking and sleep.... which we want to do because we must do them to live well. This is why we are attracted to food, drinks, rest and play. We experience feelings of well being , satisfaction, happiness.... after playing, resting, drinking or eating. But play has the bonus ability of curing boredom. The other three meet our needs but play extends and develops us and this is very attractive even addictive to us.

There are things I remember doing as a girl where I became so absorbed that I didn't miss not sleeping or eating. Time had flown and it was irrelevant to me that Mum had yelled out saying dinner was on the table and now getting cold. I was satisfied as I played.

This describes the state where children are freed to be themselves. They don't feel they are being observed, checked on or compared with others. They could be on their own playing or with other like-minded players. They are relaxed and at ease with themselves, with what they are doing and life at the moment.

The best way to understand this point is to listen to some music by people such as Ray Charles, Louis Armstrong or Billy Holiday, or watch some Appalachian mountain cloggers perform. This tap dance style and these jazz musicians do not perform to a predetermined script, they improvise. Every time they sing, play or dance a particular piece, it will be unique - a one-off. 
In relation to play, improvisation is one of the most creative, exciting and exhilarating aspects, which lead children to develop in all areas of life. For creative people and children, this side of play needs to be regularly practiced.

Here we have a cycle.  want to play - play - love of the experience builds bigger hopes to...
                                      want to play - play - ...........
The seventh property of play also speaks of a base on which future skills of prolonged concentration in all sorts of areas of life, will develop.

You may be thinking so what, seven properties of play. What's it got to do with my children and their playing?

THISWEEKWITHTHEKIDS you could think of what your child's favourite play occupation is. Or the environment where your child plays most. Now re read the seven properties of play and carefully decide if they are experiencing each for themselves.
You may conclude that play at your house needs to change. Do it, and enjoy play as it was intended to be enjoyed.