Universal Language of Play

I have often mused that there must be a universal language of play with children. I was reminded of it again today at the pool. Cannon balls and keep away with goggles gave way to a more sophisticated game played with other kids about the same age. By adapting the rules of tag, one person was it on the outside of the pool and sought to catch others as they stealthfully swam across the pool. Rules were adapted if the game seemed to drag or was too easy. Cheaters were called out. Alliances were established. And a good time was had by all.

As often as I can during the school year, I sit with my lunch outside. From the steps near the dining hall I can watch children play – the youngest nearby and the older students across the playground. The commonalities between the students’ play is noteworty. Imaginative play in the “kitchen” area of the Early Elementary playground and pretend stores in the Upper Elementary playground happen without guidance or direction. Leaves become plates or currency. Rules are established, sophisticated bargaining ensues, and skills are developed. Problem solving occurs – sometimes with words, sometimes with force, and sometimes with negotiation. Everyone is learning, though, through play.

I marvel that every grade level has those who play chasing games, those who swing till they are forced to give up their perches, and those who create some kind of game with a ball. And every single grade level has kids who race to be the first in line and those who linger behind getting in one more cartwheel or ride down the slide.

Years ago, I was fortunate to be in Italy. On a hot afternoon, I sat down in a small shaded park with a cup of gelato in my hand and watched children playing soccer. Though I understood not a word of Italian that was spoken, I saw fighting for a ball, high fives with success, and frustrations when the game was not fairly being played. The language of play is universal.



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