Is the play of a child an insignificant, casual activity, an activity to be “grown out of” as soon as possible? What can be seen beyond the superficial in the eager delight or earnest absorption with which some children enter into the simplest of games? If we consider the world of fantasy – so accessible to the young child – silly and impractical and we try to supplant it earlier and earlier with textbooks, instructional videos and complex electronic games, introducing the questioning mind to the sophistication of the “real” world, is this a healthy short-cut? It is apparent that children in modern society, with its offering of a plethora of mechanized diversions, are in danger of losing the ability for spontaneous, creative play.
The way in which a child plays may be compared to his/her approach to work in later life. While adult work must adapt itself to the necessities of the outer world, children’s play arises from internal promptings, independent of the need for justification by other people or the activity itself. These two paths seem to lie far apart, yet creative fantasy is still one of the most valuable inner capabilities at an adult’s disposal. In industry, technology, science, and even in everyday life, creativity is critical in seeking new directions and answers, if we are not to be stuck in a rut. Lacking initiative and imagination, the human being is un-free. Fantasy points towards the future in that it relates us to existing reality at the same time it transcends it. In the attempt to change and better what is, we also relate to what is in the process of becoming and growing.
Children are naturally equipped with fantasy and creativity, but very early in life these qualities can be cultivated – or squashed. One of the most important considerations of a parent or an educator concerns toys and the practice of giving children elaborately “finished” objects. It is the nature of the industrial age to turn out many quickly-produced items to be used once and then disposed of, and it is in the nature of a child to quickly tire of these specialized toys narrowly suited to one purpose. The simpler the toy, the more stimulated is the child’s gift for invention. For example, a group of five- and six-year-olds can use small logs, bark, pine cones, pebbles, roughly carved wooden figures of people and animals to build a farm complete with houses, stables, a well, pastures and fields. For days this can be expanded and changed according to the constantly shifting pictures that arise in their imaginations. The best toys are those which allow the fantasy as much freedom as possible.
Think of the detail in the modern doll, complex in its anatomy, technically so perfect that it can open and close its eyes, talk with a tinned voice and wet its diapers. But this will never end, because the more detail there is in a toy, the more demanding a child will become. And, correspondingly, the more atrophied the powers of fantasy will become. Fantasy needs, like muscles, regular use to be strengthened. Novelty wears off and boredom begins. The permanent mask-like features of the so-called beautiful doll becomes constricting, while the very simple doll enables the child’s imagination to embody all possible views of the human being in an ever-changing, mobile way. One day the doll can be sad, one day happy, one day lively and bright, one day tired and mopey – a true friend who mirrors the child’s mood.
The materials from which toys are made is of great significance because of the sensitivity and impressionable nature of a child. When a toy is only slightly shaped by man, the natural processes inherent in it can appropriately express their being to the child in his/her search for experience. The technical processes used in making plastics are abstract and meaningless to a child, and the neutral
quality of artificial materials deprives and repulses the imagination. When stones, animals and utensils are all made of the identical manufactured substance, the child’s touch is deceived and finds no stimulation. To walk into someone’s home and see an ingenious tower built of simple blocks, a wooden wagon with handmade dolls riding inside, children whose hands are full of brightly colored yarn and knitting needles, paper and beeswax crayons, or scraps of cloth and boxes out of which they are building a city and enacting characters in a drama of their choosing is truly moving. Children who know how to really play scarcely know what it is to be bored! Make use of these opportunities and give your child something truly beautiful, meaningful, and lasting.