Most of us can recall a time in school when we just didn’t “get” something. In the third grade, I witnessed a classmate hiding the fact that he couldn’t tell time. The teacher had expected him to do an errand for her and told him to leave his desk at “exactly 1:45.” He had to confess that he hadn’t a clue what that meant. And his past November, I attended an open house event for my niece, Lauren. She stood in the hallway very upset because her construction paper turkey didn’t look at all like her first grade peers or the teacher’s model. I recall her saying, “mine looks like a duck with funny feathers.”
Small matters, right? But not to a child. I am guessing that if I would have asked my third grade classmate how he was feeling when he didn’t know how to tell time or if I would have asked my niece why she was so upset about her turkey the answer would have been the same: “Less than brilliant” or “I am ashamed.”
“Not getting it” happens to every child. What we want is for them to bounce back, to not lose confidence in themselves as capable learners. Our faith in them helps, of course. So does having their teacher’s support. But there’s something else that can restore a child’s sense of competence, and this old-fashioned remedy is always effective, even when a child does not let you in on a discouraging experience.
Simply give the children in your care the chance to play every day. It has to be real play, though, where a child decides what to do and how to do it! In play, children set their own challenges and find out they can succeed. Children usually choose tasks that challenge them, but aren’t overwhelming.
When children are playing, they don’t worry about failing. Play, after all, is supposed to be fun. And you don’t get evaluated on fun. What’s more, because play is a no-risk situation, children often find themselves attempting more and more. In play, children try out new skills and discover they can perform at a higher level.
When they’re playing, children can pretend that they’re the ones in charge. Instead of being told when to get on the school bus, a child can be the driver. Instead of having to finish their vegetables at a meal time, a child can become the cook. Instead of taking a test, an older child may play school and be the teacher. Play builds self confidence. In play, children put aside feelings of being powerless and experience being capable.
Give a child in your care the time to play and you will be giving them time to re-charge. A child at play is someone who solves problems, generates new ideas, is curious and creative. A child at play is someone who sets and meets challenges, risks trying out new skills and experiences what it’s like to feel capable and in charge. And sometimes, a child who plays is someone who’s bouncing back from a temporary bout of “not getting it.”