Play Is the Work of the Child

by Rachael on January 12, 2011

The Critter takes his work very seriously.

In the first few weeks at his new school, the Critter sometimes cried as I was about to leave. “Why is he crying?” asked one of the other children.

“He’s crying because he’s sad,” I said. “It’s OK to cry when you’re sad.”

“Why is he sad?” asked the girl.

“He’s sad because he misses me when I’m not around. I’m sad, too, because I miss him when he’s not around. Plus, I’m not going to be doing anything all that fun. I have to work.”

As soon as I said it, I realized that this statement probably didn’t make much sense to the girl I was talking to. Indeed, she did look puzzled. Why wouldn’t my work be fun? “Play is the work of the child,” Maria Montessori famously said, and so the children at the Critter’s Montessori school work all day. They work with trains. They work with paints and crayons. They work with each other.

My initial impulse was to resist this way of looking at children’s play. What a dreary lot we adults must be if we are unable to take play seriously unless we label it with that dreary word, work.

But who said that work had to be dreary? (OK, probably everyone seems to agree that it is. But why?) What if I were to approach my work with the same energy, imagination, and joy as the Critter does his play? (Honestly, the very idea of doing so exhausts me. But why?) And, if I’m unable to do so, what does it say about me? (Where is my mind at this very moment?) What does it say about the kind of work I am taking up? (Is it for this that I spent all those years in school?)

Another quotation that often comes to mind, from Zen master Eihei Dogen’s “Guidelines for Studying the Way”: “If you find one thing wearisome, you will find everything wearisome.” Don’t I know it. What if everything instead were play?

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Amber January 12, 2011 at 7:23 PM

I think it’s possible to incorporate more play into life, for sure. To make everything more fun and less dreary.

But I’m not sure I’ll ever like washing the dishes, all the same. I guess maybe that’s OK. Increase the playfulness, but accept that not everything will always, always be your cup of tea. There’s no need to make having fun into a (necessarily dreary) job.
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Rachael January 14, 2011 at 9:04 AM

I’m with you on the dishes. Lucky me, my husband does most of the washing up around here. But what I have in mind when I talk about play has less to do with fun than it does with openness and curiosity. How could that be brought to washing dishes? Don’t know.

It strikes me that Dogen might have something to say about washing dishes. He also wrote something called “Guidelines for the Cook,” or something of the sort. I’ve never read it, but there’s apparently a lot in it about how to wash rice properly. Though he wasn’t interested in play so much as what folks these days call mindfulness.


Michelle @ The Parent Vortex January 12, 2011 at 11:48 PM

What would life be like if everything was play? I think it depends a lot on how you understand play. Not every playful thing my kids do is pleasing for them (although much of their play is). They disagree, one asks the other to play something she doesn’t want to do, or a child struggles in play to learn something challenging. Like how to walk! Or read. Or talk.

I’m challenging myself and my assumptions about what is or is not wearisome, something that must be simply endured, etc. And surprising myself at how much I can make more playful simply by shifting my perception & attitude. Play is powerful stuff.


Rachael January 14, 2011 at 9:09 AM

I tend to think of play as not necessarily about fun (as I commented above), but it had never occurred to me that yes, it can even be less than pleasing. But yes, it is indeed powerful. In fact, it’s just about all I’ve been thinking about all week! Not a little influenced by you, of course.


Lauren @ Hobo Mama January 19, 2011 at 4:41 PM

This reminds me of the mind shift I had reading The Continuum Concept, where the author talks about how getting water, grinding corn, carrying heavy loads — it all just was, instead of being considered labor. There was less baggage about it, less a sense of “Well, we have to.” I take that with a grain of salt, as I take the whole book (outsider viewing unfamiliar culture, etc.), but it was very eye-opening for me to ask why I assign the idea of burden to the work I choose for myself.
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Rachael January 21, 2011 at 10:23 AM

I’ve not been able to finish reading The Continuum Concept, mostly because it seems to me to be a very angry book (similar in its not-so-buried anger, I think, to The Drama of the Gifted Child) and I get all worked up reading it. But the stuff at the beginning about work really surprised me. I’ve been meaning to ask around if there have been any writings by anthropologists or ethnographers on the same peoples whom Liedloff lived with.


Lauren @ Hobo Mama January 21, 2011 at 2:16 PM

If you find any, will you let me know? I was a big TCC fan before I read it, and then I did read it and eventually felt constricted by it — there was a lot of dogma going on both in the book and in the community that supports it, and, still, by the author, who as you mentioned is not an anthropologist, nor a parent for that matter, but who counsels parents. I don’t have a problem with non-experts or non-parents giving ideas on parenting, but as I said, a lot of the recommendations started seeming very rigid to me, in the face of parenting my actual child. I like a lot of the ideas of TCC better than the book itself, to be honest, but I would love reading anthropologists’ take on the same matters.
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