Recently, I asked my class what they could actually do in their free time after school, that doesn’t require a screen. At first, the class was silent. If I had asked my pupils about computer games or social media platforms, I would have immediately been snowed under with a wealth of answers. Finally, a boy offered “Go out and play football or just clean up your room”. Then a girl held her hand up and told me that she helped her mother with cooking and cleaning. One boy agreed that he also likes to cook with his father and draws often. Another boy told us about playing with Legos together with his younger brother. One girl enthusiastically listed the games “Scrabble”, “Ligretto”, “Chicken out”, “Halma” and “The Nasty Seven” that they would play at home. The other children looked confused and it was obvious that an explanation was necessary. The girl explained the different games to them. Meanwhile, one boy had a stony and slightly insulted expression. Obviously, he was disturbed by my question. I knew that in his spare time that he spent a lot of time, too much time with computer games. As time went by, a few ideas came up about how to have fun without electronics during free time. However, I also realised that many families have little time for playing together.
“I am the excavator”
As so often, I thought about the discussion on my way home. Was getting together to play with other children no longer the order of the day? Playing is one of the most important activities for a child, especially a young child! Even babies play with their hands and feet. Strenuously and yet cheerfully, they reach for anything they can get to and put it in their mouth. In this way they get to know their body and gain their first experiences in their small environment. Later, when the infants can walk and hold objects their scope of action expands. They begin to build, shape and test different materials. Paper is crumpled up, torn up and put into the mouth by way of trial. Towers made of wooden blocks emerge and collapse again with din and half-serious cries of horror. With paper and pencils they begin to illustrate their ideas in drawings. And soon the block becomes a car and the chair a locomotive, when the children at around two years of age start to use their surroundings according to their own ideas. Language plays an increasingly important role here. This symbolic game expands into role play in which people and actions from everyday life are imitated: “Now I am the excavator and you are the truck driver.”
An incomparable field of practice
These forms of play are part of a child’s personality development and provide an incomparable field of practice for their motor skill, social-emotional, mental and creative development. Children explore the unknown and try out newly discovered skills and master them “by playing”. With amazing stamina and enthusiasm, children engage in games in which they can move and which demand something of them. In doing so, they experience and train their body, begin to control it, experience their limits and learn to assess risks. They experience and process a wealth of sensory impressions and expand their knowledge of the world. By playing they practise empathy with other people, they develop understanding, they learn how be helpful, they learn to endure and resolve conflicts, they learn to deal with disappointment. These are important parts of personality development. Children are intrinsically motivated to play, to deal with themselves and the environment, to recognise connections and conceive them in thought: “Thinking means researching, investigating, turning around, checking and supplementing with the aim of finding something new or seeing something already known in a new light – in short, it means asking questions” (John Dewey). No matter how sophisticated, the learning programme or the electronic medium cannot replace playing with other children. Children need analogue games, here and now.
How do you play? – what are the rules?
The next day it was pouring rain and we spent the break in the classroom – playing together. The children chose games and game partners. Favourites were “Uno”, “Mill”, “Mikado” and a ball game. Two children chose to do a puzzle together.
Soon it became restless in the “Uno” players’ corner. Obviously, they could not agree on the rules of the game. One child, who was losing, had special family rules and wanted to introduce them in the middle of the game. We discussed the issue and decided that it would make sense to agree on the rules – creatively designed with our own ideas – binding for everyone at the beginning of a game. Afterwards the game continued loudly but peacefully.
The Mikado players experienced a similar situation. Questions such as “who gets the stick that was shaking? Which sticks could be used for slinging and how many points did the different sticks count?” Meanwhile, the two girls playing “Mill” were unequally matched. One girl was an experienced player and knew all the tricks, the other had played it only a few times. The experiences player won time after time and the other player soon did not want to play anymore. The idea that the experienced player could teach her girlfriend solved the issue. At first, the experienced player was hesitant, but then she got involved in this new task. Now both were concentrated as they played the game: “Look, if you put your stone here, I can close a mill. You’d better put it there.”
Two children had set up their puzzle on the large table. “I always look for the edge pieces first,” I heard. “I look at the colours or look for pieces to make a figure, then I put them together.” With different and also changing solution strategies, the two made good progress, and soon other children joined them.
I remembered long winter evenings at home, when we had played “Eile mit Weile (Ludo / more haste, less speed)”, “Leiterlispiel (Ladder Game)” or “Tschau Sepp” (MauMau) together. Like my students, I had been confronted with winning and losing, luck or skill in these rule games. Often it is not easy to deal with the feelings associated with them – anger and disappointment, enthusiasm and joy. But this is also a field of learning.
Playing – a first profession?
Play is not a by-product in a child’s life, but an essential part of his or her personality development. Therefore, child play has long been the subject of research. In a certain sense, playing is the child’s first profession, especially for young children. Children explore and the world, and in doing so, acquire the basics of learning. Children want to take action, discover and understand, familiarise themselves with the unknown, find out how things work and how the laws of nature work. The game thus becomes foundation for learning in school and later for the development of professional skills. Comprehensively, play is about the development of intellectual, emotional, social, motor skills and creative abilities. Through play, children acquire the skills and abilities that will later enable them to become independent, self-reliant and socially responsible. This is an important prerequisite for a successful education and life. Not only for children, but also for the care of elderly people.
Supporting play – digital or analogue
Today, there are many learning/playing tools in circulation promising playful support for children, many of them digital. Which is better? I found a recommendation from experts in a flyer from a school psychology service: “If you want to support your child, make sure that there is enough room for play in his or her life and that screen time doesn’t overtake playtime. This avoids boredom, promotes adaptation, and allows the child to learn from experience and sort out the world. Imagination is a motor for productive thinking, for constructive ideas and for problem-solving skills which, together with a good education and a healthy, self-confident personality, offer the best conditions for good career prospects.”1 Further important tips can be found in the text by Dr Barbara Ritter in the following box.
Free time – a gift
It is therefore important that children have sufficient free time at their disposal, which they can organise independently and free from expectations and pressure to perform. Even at school age children can and must learn to organise their time, develop and implement independent ideas. This strengthens their ability to understand and master everyday challenges. This does not mean leaving the child alone or emptying the playroom or kindergarten so that the child becomes “creative”. Because “the grass doesn’t grow faster when you pull on it”, as we often hear today, but it atrophies or dies if you do not take proper care of it. That’s why a real interest of parents in what their children are doing is essential. And of course, whenever time allows, playing together. Is there no room for it today?
When I recently came home, three children were sitting on a tree on the neighbouring property. Visibly amused, they watched the passers-by, expecting a reaction. I was happy. •
1 School Psychology Service of the Canton of St. Gallen. Lernen oder Spielen? Kinder lernen spielend (Learning or playing? Children learn by playing), https://www.schulpsychologie-sg.ch/pic-pdf-liste-themen/Lernen-oder-Spielen.pdf (retrieved on 23 November 2020)
The following sources were helpful to me in writing this article:
by Dr. phil. Barbara Ritter, neuropsychologist, children’s hospital of Eastern Switzerland, St. Gall
The question is what exactly you want to train or promote with playing and for what purpose. When it comes to specifically training cognitive functions as efficiently as possible, computer tasks are probably more efficient because adaptivity and specification can be ensured much better. This works very well for adults if they are serious about the training. In case of children, there is always the risk that they simply click around on the screen over time and then the digital training misses its purpose. Some online trainings have feedback systems so that parents or trainers can notice this and intervene. Of course, you do not learn anything social with digital training. What we have in common, the relationship, waiting, frustration tolerance, emotion regulation, fine motor skills – none of this comes into play. This, in turn, is the advantage of parlour games, even if the training effect in cognitive terms is probably somewhat lower, because the level of difficulty is not always optimal or you only have to think when it is your turn (depending on the game). However, parlour games are basically good training materials, because they can enrich everyday life for years (grandparents still play the card game “Elfer raus” (“elevens out!”) with their grandchildren), because they can be easily integrated into everyday life and because they casually achieve a cognitive training effect. Research has shown, for example, that cognitive functions such as spatial thinking can be statistically significant enhanced in primary school children by playing and that seniors who often play parlour games in old age are on average less likely to suffer from dementia. In addition, parlour games are fun and foster cooperation, not to mention the training effect.
Recent studies show a mixed picture for PC games. There are actually functions in which gamers do better, for example reaction speed, visual discrimination or spatial thinking. Today’s computer games are much more interactive than in the past. Often people play interconnected as a team and communicate live via headphones during a game level. Therefore, a social interaction takes place. However, the risk is greater that gaming will slide into the field of addiction or that contacts in real life (so-called primary social experiences) will be replaced by it. Computer games are not bad per se, but they are critical, if played largely and uncontrolled. In analogue games, on the other hand, you sit opposite one another, face to face, and experience one another in direct interaction. If you want to play and promote at the same time, the brochure “Promoting and preserving brain functions with parlour games” is a good choice. The brochure contains recommendations for cognitively stimulating parlour games for all age groups and can be downloaded free of charge from:
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