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Children - The Development Of The Play Instinct

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

Play is the occupation of childhood and begins in the very earliest elements of the baby's consciousness of itself and its powers. The desire to move, to pull, to stretch, to roll, to grasp, are all the efforts at physical self-expression which eventuates in play in the little child. These should be carefully watched, and that they may be understood every mother, indeed every young woman who is a potential mother, should give herself some training in this direction. The play instinct has been the subject of much discussion from the earliest times, and some of the greatest names in literature are connected with it. It is now known that there has been a play-philosophy from the days of Plato and Aristotle, taking in such names as Quintilian, Rabelais, Fenelon, Locke, Richter, and many others. Child-societies are play-societies, and child-life is play-life. All the experiences of childhood are in the form of play, and every play is a new experience. This in turn gives new desires, new abilities, new feelings, and new knowledge. Play and playthings are really culture instruments, and sooner or later also become the guides to sex feelings and domestic instincts, as with dolls and the like.

It is interesting to know that idiots do not play, and one of the signs of backwardness is the inability or unwillingness of children to play. These things are observable in the baby, and the wise mother begins as soon as her baby can stir around or begin to use the little hands, to take note of the things the baby can play with and to provide for variety of exercises and occupation. Froebel was the great genius who, through the kindergarten, made this knowledge current throughout the world, and now every well established household has its provision for play as well as its provision for food. The proper exercise of the play instinct involves the largest amount of child activity and the least amount of adult activity. Make the child do things. Give it the things to do with and keep your own hands off all you can. Too much we have the desire to "help," which is really a hindrance, because we substitute our play for the child's play.

Properly directed, such play is the highest form of intensive education because it organizes the child's powers, leads him to make new efforts on his own account, and makes him aware of powers of which he was not aware before. This is real education. Of course all this does not mean absolute non-interference, because the mother is the natural first playmate of her child, and she should know how to be the child's playmate in order to do it effectively. This, also, because then she can guide the play, avoiding what is injurious and stimulating what is helpful and good; but guidance is not suppression of the child's initiative.

The relation of the baby movements can be understood when we realize that what we call the fine arts are merely labor made beautiful and that art is that labor lifted to its highest point in the imagination. Also from the bodily movements sprang the dance, music, and poetry, among the very highest of the arts. The Greeks called the poet "Poies," that is, "worker," because the two ideas are naturally linked together in their initial appearance in baby play. What we call experimentation is merely the joy at being able to do things and the pretenses which are employed in play, the conscious self-deception which makes for control and leadership. The real significance of play has been very finely expressed by one of the great authorities on the subject, who says: "Childhood is the period in which, by the eminently supple and attractive instrument of play, the natural instincts and impulses so exuberant and so far reaching, make possible the normal, healthy, active, ingenious, self-knowing and self-trusting adult. Just as helplessness in infancy is the guarantee of adult intellect, play in babyhood is the guarantee of adult morality and culture. Play may be termed the genius side of instinct. Play in childhood is concerned with everything—emotions, feelings, acts, thoughts, imaginings, speech; all begin their career under its subtle shaping influence and the really genial among adults never lose in science, art, or literature the `play' which makes it a joy to be alive and to use life. Language, poetry, art, science, all begin in child play ; the orator, the poet, the artist, the seeker after knowledge, play as surely as the child."

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