Things I Learned From Listening To Children’s Play

November 11, 2018 Long Read, Social Observation
Things I Learned From Listening To Children Play

With all that is going on in the world parents and anyone forward-thinking seems to have good reason for worrying about our future.  Our children are fed artificial food, have active shooter drills at school, have classmates that suddenly disappear because their parents were deported, and average six and a half hours a day in front of a screen (according to  Childwise market research, March, 2015). All of those factors, among others, must be having a negative effect on our children, right? That would certainly seem to be the logical conclusion.

I’m not 100 percent convinced the kids are in as dire straights as we might think, though. Children are incredibly adaptive and responsive, not to mention more freaking intelligent than we ever considered at their age. We sell them short when we think that the only response they can have to all the external influences on their lives must be negative. Children inherently want to be positive, their outlooks are natively hopeful. If their minds can find a way to put a positive spin on something, they will.

On the average afternoon, our house is populated with three children ages 8, 9, and almost 10. While they certainly make sure they get in their allotted amount of screen time each day, They also do a pretty good job of “playing analog,” whether with toys or cardboard boxes or remnants of things they snuck from the garbage when no one was looking. Using their imagination is still a part of their daily routine.

An advantage of having children survive to this age is that they don’t need an adult watching over them every second. They can generally play and interact with each other without immediate supervision right up to the point that they sense an imbalance in their social equity and then matters get rather dicey. Still, like any good parent, I keep an ear out for approaching trouble or inappropriate language, or perhaps a bit of classroom gossip. I work from home so they’re my equivalent of office entertainment.

What the kids of have taught me is that their outlook on life isn’t nearly as dark and dank as we might imagine it to be. They’ve absorbed the events that we took as negative and found ways to spin that into a narrative that allows them to have a positive outlook just as full of hope and promise as when we were kids.

What I’m hearing from the kids is a lesson worth repeating. So, here’s a list of eight things I’ve learned from listening to our children playing.

Reality Is Fluid

Children have a unique relationship with reality that allows them to bend facts to fit their vision. As adults, we call this “spinning” but that term implies that the twisting of facts is done intentionally and deliberately. With children, there’s no intent of malice or deception in how they reshape their reality. They simply look for a perspective that doesn’t involve pain or loss.

For example, in their world, the president isn’t really evil, he just does bad things because bad people tell him to do them and threaten his family if he doesn’t. That view might seemed naive and uninformed, but think about it a moment. How does anyone know that’s not disturbingly close to what’s happening? We’ve seen the vile characters surrounding this president. Already, a number of his “associates” have been indicted for some rather serious crimes. Just because extortion hasn’t been proven yet doesn’t mean it’s not actively happening.

See what they’ve done? Their version of reality allows them to still retain faith in the presidency and our government while accepting that the actions of those currently in office is deplorable. They’re also willing to allow that even though the president’s actions are often hurtful, they don’t deny him his humanity, which is probably a lot more forgiving than the view most adults have.

This alternative method of thinking is what allows them to remain hopeful no matter how bad the actual circumstances might be. Many of you have been there: you grew up poor but never really felt poor, or grew up with a single parent but never felt a lack of love.  We credit our parents or some other influential figure in our lives for “shielding us from the reality” but what was actually happening was that we simply reimagined that reality in a way that allowed us to avoid our parents’ stress and look positively toward the future.

Children easily accept what adults forget: reality is what we make of it. We always have the ability to change our perspective. That doesn’t mean facts change or consequences are muted, but how we accept things in our lives doesn’t have to be as negative as we might think.

Fantasy Could Be Real (if adults hadn’t messed things up)

Dragons. According to the children playing, they once existed and the only reason we don’t have them anymore is because adults killed them all a long time ago, like, 50 or 60 years ago. That’s the narrative I’m hearing repeated on a number of topics. Castles? Adults tore them all down. Unicorns? Adults didn’t take care of them and they died. Fairies? They went away because the adults cut down all the forests and they didn’t have anywhere to live.

You see where this is going, don’t you? Everything bad in their world, the reason they don’t have dragons or unicorns or fairies or live in castles is because we, the adults, fucked everything up. We are responsible for them not having these wonderfully incredible things that almost certainly used to exist, according to them.

Of course, they’re 100 percent correct in their general assessment. There used to be some wonderful things on this planet until the adults totally fucked it all up. Things like clean drinking water, clean air, and clean oceans. Thousands of species have already gone extinct and many others are endangered by deforestation. How do we know a unicorn or fairies weren’t among those lost? We’ve even ruined the housing market for them, so there goes those castles.

I know Millennials get a lot of grief for “ruining” things older generations took for granted, but this younger generation, the one that has yet to be named, is already taking aim for us. From their perspective, we ruined their fantasy and they’re bound and determined to take it back.

Let me break down what they’re already talking about:

  • Heavy corporate regulation to eliminate pollution and environmental irresponsibility
  • Strict penalties, possibly even death, for those who destroy natural resources
  • Universal access to basic necessities that not only includes healthcare but housing, clothing, and food
  • Global protections for all species of animals, known and unknown

To do that, they’re willing to completely reimagine government and reinvent the corporation and its relationship to society. From their perspective, we’ve destroyed what was sacred to them, so they’re coming after what’s sacred to us. They’re going to find those dragons and unicorns.

Science is a Given

These kids love science and wouldn’t dream of questioning it. They love exploring and learning how things work and why certain molecules form specific materials. They even go so far as to incorporate that into their play.

In one scenario, one of the previously mentioned “dad” figures who had gone missing suddenly returns but he looks different (they had changed dolls). When one asked the other how they knew it was the right “dad,” the answer came back, “Oh, they just did a DNA match. No problem.”

DNA. No problem. Science is such a dominant part of their education that it seems inexcusable that anyone would not believe it. A recent conversation went something like this:

A: Did you know some people think the earth is flat?

T: Well that’s the stupidest thing I ever heard. Didn’t those people go to school?

A: They probably did but they probably sat at the back of the class and didn’t listen.

T: If the earth was flat all the stupid people would fall off it.

A: Yeah, and all the people who don’t give their kids shots.

T: I don’t like shots. I got a flu shot the last time I went to the doctor. It really hurt.

A: But now you won’t get the flu!

T: Which means I won’t die. That’s what happens if you don’t get your shots: you die.

They hold similar disturbingly fatal opinions on things like global warming (everyone in Florida is going to drown) and oil consumption (only dinosaurs use fossil fuels and they’re going to die) and space exploration (our children are going to live on Mars because our parents are killing the earth).

What may be even more disturbing is that they’re given totally to the rule of science. When I recently tried to convince my daughter (age 8) that the fish I was serving for dinner was good for her, she countered first by dramatically rolling her eyes and then added, “Dad, I know you haven’t done a double-blind study and unless you have a double-blind study what you’re saying isn’t accurate.”

Well damn. I don’t have a reasonable comeback against logic like that. Nor do I have time to perform a double-blind study on the nutritional qualities of every meal. Mac and cheese it is, I guess.

Science deniers should probably take note that this upcoming generation holds absolutely no value for their unfounded and conspiracy-theoried opinions. In fact, they’re likely to shame you right into your grave. They’re more than willing to let you die. They think you  have it coming. Good luck with that.

Technology Is Universal

They have never known a time when there wasn’t WiFi and the Internet at their beckoned call. While they may not have “intelligent” devices overwhelming their homes yet, they’re more than willing to accept that they’re coming and are ready to integrate them into their lives. They do not fear technology at all. In fact, they heartily embrace it and seem to easily imagine where it’s going next.

For example, during a recent play period, one of them instructed our non-existent digital assistant to start dinner. I naively asked how that was supposed to happen. Their response?

“Easy. The kitchen robot takes the food out of the refrigerator and the oven automatically knows how to cook it.”

Duh. I should have seen that coming. The world they envision for themselves is driven by technology. They don’t need cash because the money is already on their phone. They don’t need to know how to drive because the car drives itself. They don’t need to know how to cook because their digital assistant orders prepared meals that the smart oven already knows how to cook.

Part of me wants to bristle at this view of an all-consuming technological takeover. I look at their play and see an inevitable loss of skill. Consider the chemistry that comes in knowing how to mix ingredients for just the right flavor to chili or carne asada. Part of the delight in preparing those dishes comes in making it your own, having it come out slightly different every time. If one is not preparing their own food, they lose the ability to discover a new flavor they could not have anticipated.

Likewise, as fintech becomes more dominant, I worry about the loss of skill in understanding how money works, how to balance a checkbook and a budget. Already, they’ve no idea what a checkbook even is. The technology automatically reconciles accounts, so why would they need to understand the concept of outstanding payments? How will they know how to avoid high interest if they only see it as part of the price?

Yet, what I have to realize is that they are actively building a better world for themselves where those matters are no longer critical to survival. Sure, they may be nice to have, just in case one is caught out in the woods or something, but skills we considered essential 40 years ago fall into the quirky nice-to-have category today.

Instead, they talk about “patching the code” in a program that ordered the wrong size pants or “writing an app” to help them manage which friend needs their help most. They see technology helping with everything from walking the dogs to taking care of newborn babies because Mom has to fly to Paris tomorrow. There is almost nothing in their future that is not run by technology.

What’s equally important, though, is realizing they’re developing the skills already to facilitate exactly the environment they’re imagining. These are not pipe dreams or fanciful illusions. They have the ability to make these things happen and almost certainly will. We’re going to have to run to keep up.

Everyone Leaves, Nothing Is Forever

People move. People disappear. People go to live in other countries. People become rock stars and are on tour all the time. One of the persistent themes in the children’s play is that everything is temporary and no one stays in the same place very long. What’s important is that they don’t consider this a bad thing but rather a growth thing. From their perspective, for things to improve one has to move.

I find this interesting primarily because previous generations of children have struggled dramatically with this kind of change. Moving from one city to another was a big deal. Leaving behind old friends and the prospect of having to make new ones was traumatic.

These kids don’t see life through that same lens, though. For them, change is not only inevitable, change is good. Leaving friends isn’t a big deal because they have social media to keep in touch. Making new friends is part and parcel of a society that is always on the move.

At the crux of this attitude lies the belief that where one is now is limiting, that there is only so much one can do in any one place. At first I thought perhaps this was an anti-Midwest mindset but the more I listened to them I realized that was not the case. If a character was in LA it was just as limited as a character in Nashville or a character in Atlanta. As a result, they had their characters move around, all of them. No one stays in any one place.

At the same time, they seem more willing to accept that some situations, including relationships, are temporary. “I used to be in love with him but now I’m in love with her instead,” is the type of phrase they have their characters saying on a rather frequent basis. In their world, jobs come and go, houses and apartments change with the weather, and even personal items are interchangeable.

This detachment to “things” is interesting because it doesn’t directly equate to a lack of consumerism or materialism. They still buy, they still consume, and they still want new/more things. At the same time, though, they have no problem walking away from something, or everything, at the promise of something better, even if what is better is not something tangible.

Even being “rich” is a temporary condition. When they create a character who has a lot of money, that character inevitably gives it all away. They don’t spend it on excess, mind you. They give it all to help other people, which brings us to the next category:

Generosity Is Expected

Sharing and fairness are dominant themes for children—they always have been. What I’m seeing in how children play, however, is a shift away from attempts to see who can accumulate the most and a greater attitude toward sharing everything that one has, from food to clothes to money.

On one hand, it could be very easy to dismiss this as naive idealism. After all, they are still quite young and haven’t really experienced what it’s like to accumulate real wealth and the power that comes with doing so. They’ve also never seen extreme wealth and power on display outside of movies, where the rich person is often the bad guy. There’s a lack of perspective that, one might argue, taints their philosophy.

On the other hand, however, we do well to consider that coming from a lower-income position almost certainly affects their attitudes toward generosity and witnessing acts of generosity on the part of others gives them something to emulate in both play and real life.

Consider, for example, when basketball superstar LeBron James opened, and funded, a private school for low-income and at-risk kids. These kids noticed the generosity and made the assumption that this is how a person is supposed to behave when they’re rich. Any time another act of generosity hits popular media, that reinforces their opinion that this is how rich people are supposed to behave.

This leaves greed to be a negative characteristic for the villains in superhero movies. In their minds, greed is something that is not merely negative, greed makes you a bad person,  something to be avoided all together. No one wants to be a bad person. Therefore, generosity is the logical choice.

Already, these kids have some experience with being generous. They understand giving their used toys to younger kids who need them. They thoroughly enjoy giving the toys away as a way to avoid having to clean so much of their room. What’s surprising, though, is that they don’t mind giving away part of their belongings, they’re willing to give it all away, right down to their last My Little Pony.

Why? Go back to the previous category: everything is temporary. They don’t expect to have their toys forever, therefore they don’t mind parting with them. Now, understand that with this comes the expectation on the backside that they will eventually get more toys. Donations are made in conjunction with impending birthdays and holidays that see a new crop of material coming in. That certainly makes it easier to be generous.

Still, as they get older, they are likely to take this very generous attitude with them and as they do their generation’s generosity may affect everything from investments to fundraising.

Death Is Part Of The Narrative

Our kids were barely three and four years old when they made a trip to Iowa to visit their great-grandmother for the last time. Through the whole trip, it was made clear to them that they would not be seeing her again. A conscious choice was made to not shield them from the inevitable.

A couple of years later, they experienced death again when one of our cats, the first we had adopted, died suddenly. There wasn’t even a chance to say goodbye. Mommy took the cat to the vet and the cat didn’t return.

Throughout their play, people and things often die and listening to their conversations around those events is interesting. There is a deep understanding that death is final. A character who dies isn’t revived. Ever. The death of one character can sometimes cause negative actions on the part of another character. Remorse and regret are frequent themes after a character dies.

Rarely is death a matter of someone “getting what they had coming to them.” In fact, the death of a villain is surprisingly rare. Instead, characters are more likely to die from real-world causes such as cancer, heart attack, and, in a true sign of the times, during a mass shooting.

Another interesting facet of this level of their play is that the characters they kill off are seemingly prepared to die, regardless of their age. While I find this interesting, I’m not sure exactly how to interpret it. I don’t think it equates to them being personally accepting of their own mortality. If something were to happen to one of them or their immediate peers, I’ve no doubt there would be a lot of questioning. However, the fact that they see death as an inevitability is certain to effect their view on any number of long-range topics.

Where the topic of death gets uncomfortable is hearing them talk about what happens after one dies. One child has been exposed to a Christian church more than the other two. As a result, the concept of any manner of afterlife is up for debate. One is certain that we all go to heaven and see those who have gone on before us. Another says there is no heaven and when we die, we’re dead. The end. The third is willing to accept various forms of reincarnation both as human and as animal. Mind you, none of the children have been exposed to any length of Hindu teaching. However, she’s quite taken with the concept and is what she currently chooses to believe.

None of their play nor their conversations indicate that they believe morality has any determination in what happens after death, even for the one who believes in heaven. In her mind, everyone goes, as well as dogs and cats and goldfish and hamsters. I think she’s expecting a crowd when she arrives. Neither does the child who embraces reincarnation draw a cause/effect path between one’s actions and their form upon return. Rather, it’s a coolness factor to come back as a better human, or a dog. Coming back as a dog is cool in her mind.

I have a tinge of concern because history teaches us that a people who do not fear death have little problem with invoking it upon others. How they play does not seem to be taking them in that direction, though. They don’t view death as a punishment or a reward, simply an inevitability.

Everything Ends Happily In Time For Dinner

As the kids play, there is always a sense for what time it is. Lunchtime, snack time, and dinnertime are all hardwired into their schedule. While play concepts might carry through lunch and snack time, when they sense that dinner is on the horizon, they start winding down their story arch just as a showrunner who knows their series has been cancelled.

More than once, I’ve heard the phrase, “I was going to suggest we (insert activity here) but we better not, it’s almost dinnertime.” There’s rarely any argument with that statement, either, when it comes to play. Now, if they happen to be on electronics when dinnertime approaches, we have a very different conversation that often involves threats of losing access to said electronics. There is more reluctance to pause that activity of later return for fear that the game/video might shut itself down. With their analog play, though, wrapping up their storyline isn’t a problem.

Perhaps that is because they see every day as a different story. Closing the day is like coming to the end of a book. All the characters are deemed safe and happy and can be left without any worry.

Being able to put a final stopping point on their play seems to be important. Should dinner suddenly be ready sooner than was expected, I’m greeted with exasperation and frustration, not unlike getting to the end of the book only to find the last five pages missing. Stories they create in their play need that finality.

When we stop and think about it, we expect the same from life. We all want a nice, tidy ending point where we die in our sleep surrounded by friends and family. When that doesn’t happen, our stories feel incomplete. Our life’s book is unfinished.

What I’ve learned is to make sure the kids have enough warning to finish whatever they’re playing, whether it’s digital or analog. I don’t need the attitude at the dinner table.

I can’t make them the same deal in life, though, no matter how much I want. No one is going to say to them in 90 years, “Hey, you’ve got five more years to go. Might want to start winding things down and getting ready.”

I’m not sure that’s the parallel to draw here, though. Rather, the greater lesson is that it’s okay to let a story end. Put a period on that thing and move on. Tomorrow is a different story, you get to start all over and do things differently. Don’t be afraid to end something, even if you like what you’re doing. Sometimes we have to stop simply because it’s time for dinner.

Listening to the kids as they play is often hilarious as they give their spin on popular culture and repeat phrases they’ve heard from their parents. Every day comes with some form of enlightenment that puts a smile on my face. Several days come with frustration as well. They don’t always get along. I can’t always solve the problems that arise. Sometimes, there are no good answers.

Playtime is important, though, because it prepares them for real life. As their play morphs and transitions, we see them becoming young adults and the attitudes they have when playing at life become the attitudes they start with in living their own lives.

There is a lot to learn from the little ones, and a lot to teach. We do well when we not only become part of their story but allow them to become part of ours.

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