Play is engaging, but not necessarily ‘fun.’

Often when we think of play, we think of young children and toys. Images of children laughing, squealing and running around may also come to mind. Or perhaps, on hearing the word ‘play’ we think of children dressing-up, playing make-believe, or creating intricate mini worlds with their dolls, Playmobil or figurines. These play activities that typically come to mind are indeed a part of many children’s free play world. Play is often fun; however, play can also be very serious. 

Play is when the activity itself is engaging to a child. In free play, a child senses a pull within themselves to engage in an activity. Every child is unique and therefore will be drawn to the activities that feel personally and uniquely satisfying for them. For some children, their play involves lining things up or creating a sense of order with items such as Pokémon cards and/or baseball cards. For others it may be building, drawing, making crafts or tinkering. These types of free play tend to be more focused and serious in nature. And yet they are deeply satisfying to a child that is drawn to them. 

Nature gave children play as the place to digest their world, to rehearse and practice for the future as well as to release alarm and frustration that may be percolating within them – these are just some of the many gifts that play provides children. Considering this, it is fascinating to reflect on how play is so often not only serious, but can be actually frustrating for a child. 

Let’s take a peek into how this might look:

When one of my son’s was younger, he loved to play with Lego. He would spend hours planning, creating and building. Sometimes he would be trying to build something and would be working on it for long periods of time to get it to look like what he was imagining in his head. However, it was not translating; the object he was building did not look like what he had hoped for and he couldn’t get it to work. It was very frustrating for him. Sometimes it was so frustrating for him that he would have tears pouring down his face while he was trying to build something.

Would I say my son was having fun during this time?

No, he was actually crying tears while he was playing. Fun would definitely not be the right adjective to describe his feelings during that play experience.

Was he engaged?

Yes, thoroughly. In fact, so engaged with his play that he was willing to stick at it while tears of frustration flowed.

Frustrating play has a purpose in childhood. Let’s explore why:

Let’s step outside of the world of play for a moment as we take a closer look at how this works. As children grow, they do need to learn to do things that their adults require of them. They need to learn to do things that they may not want or feel like doing, as one day they will have to work and live independently in the world. Their brains need to recognize that they can survive doing hard things as well as tasks they may not enjoy, as this is a part of supporting them to become adaptive beings that can live successfully in community.

However, frustrating play supports adaptation and resilience in a different way than children doing what is required of them by their adults. This other path to resilience is incredibly important as it wires children’s brains to get through hard things without any adult encouragement, involvement or support.

In free-play a child is intrinsically drawn to what engages them. Play can completely hook them and draw them in. It is in this space that they can work very hard to master their goal. They may build something and it might fall down and they will do it over and over and over again. Or they may work incredibly hard to make something look like the design they had imagined or function in the way they hoped for. And it is PLAY that is drawing them in, not adult encouragement.

Going back to the Lego example with my son; I was not encouraging him to play Lego. It makes no difference to me whether or not he was building something. And yet play had so thoroughly hooked him in that he was willing to cry tears of frustration as he worked to master his idea.

Play was wiring his brain to get through frustration – without any adult involvement. This wiring is key if we are to have children that can get through difficult and frustrating experiences on their own. 

A child who has had many hours of free play in their childhood is more likely to have a brain that will ultimately be able to recognize it can get through hard things. When met with a frustrating experience, the child’s brain may initially go “oh-oh, yikes – this is hard. But then the brain goes “it’s OK, I recognize this, we’ve been here many times. It’s going to be OK; you’ll get through this.”

This type of brain wiring cannot be taught, it’s the result of the play experiences. This is why free play is so important in the lives of children. Children need the time and space to be able to have the play experiences that will naturally support their development and the resulting brain wiring that will help them persevere with difficult tasks.

But what if the play experience is so frustrating that the child gives up? 

We can trust nature. When the play activity becomes too frustrating for a child, their engagement will wane and they will step outside of the play bubble and move onto something else. This is normal and healthy. When their system is ready for more, their engagement may resurface and they will once again be drawn to build, make, create, etc. And you may find that some children will be drawn to frustrating play activities for certain periods of their development and then not return to it for ages. Others engage in these activities in only small bursts or in quiet, gentle ways that are harder to notice.

It’s incredible how play supports emotion and development. In a world that has replaced play with entertainment these conversations have become vital as we look to how we can help children to discover their best selves. So don’t worry if the ‘play’ you are seeing looks very serious and/or frustrating for the child. Rest assured that this is as it should be and it’s supporting emotional development and brain wiring for adaptation. Our job is to simply make room for free play to take root … nature will take care of the rest.

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