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Play – therapy for the mind and soul

“I never want to grow up,” he (Tommy) said determinedly.

“Me either,” said Annika.

“No, that isn’t something to strive for. Grown-ups never have fun. They just have a lot of boring work, stupid clothes and calluses and taxes.” (….)

“They don’t know how to play either,” said Annika. “Ooh, that you are forced to grow up!” (free translation from Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking in the South Seas, 1948)

Last night as I was reading Pippi Longstocking to my children we came across this great passage where the children, Tommy and Annika, tell Pippi that they never want to grow up because adults aren’t fun and don’t know how to play. To this Pippi replies that growing up isn’t something to strive for and then she offers the children some magical pills to prevent them from ever growing up.

This may just seem like a funny statement because growing up is, of course, something to desire and adults always know best. But do we really? Do we always know what is best for children or are there some things they know better? Like, how to play. Haven’t most of us lost the capability of playing? Speaking for myself, I get bored after just ten minutes of playing, often less… In fact, I get exhausted. Back in college as an anthropologist in training my first fieldwork was in a preschool trying to find out what free play is all about. My friend and I joined the preschool world, not as teachers but as children, studying things from their perspective. This might have been even more mind opening than when I later studied foreign cultures far away! I remember how we would have a headache just from trying to truly enter their world and see it with their eyes. If that is how hard it is for adults to understand children’s culture, imagine how hard it must be for children to make sense of the adult world…

The book Play – The Danish Way by Iben Dissing Sandahl, published a couple of years ago, seems more relevant now, during the Covid pandemic, than ever as a reminder that what children really need to stay sane and happy is to play with each other. You could almost say it is their form of therapy where they process and make sense of daily experiences and a strange world. In the world of play they regain a sense of control and agency which can be hard to gain in the confusing world of adults. The book follows up on Iben Dissing Sandahl and Jessica Alexander’s international bestseller The Danish Way of Parenting which created a wide interested in how to help children enjoy unstructured free play. It is also a great book to read here in the summer where children have what seems like endless time. It provides the readers with a great opportunity to encourage free play both for the sake of their children’s healthy and happy development and for the sanity of their parents. All that parents really have to do is to create a playful environment and then leave the kids to themselves because they know much better than us what to do!

Free play is so more important for children’s development than many of us parents realize. Before I read this book, I viewed play as a way children pass their time. Just fun, or maybe even a waste of time compared to going to sports, extra curricular activities or story time. I did not take it as seriously as I should have. In fact, free play is one of the most crucial factors for healthy childhood development. Play is children learning on their own. Coming up with new creative ideas, experimenting, learning by mistakes and thinking and acting independently. Most of our world is designed by adults with adult rules and decision making. In free play children gain freedom and autonomy to create their own world, however they want it. By playing with other kids they learn how to interact and socialize, not because an adult tells them how they should behave but because they experience the consequences of their actions on their own. These skills from play are so important, also for how they do in school and fair later in life. Through free play children develop the ability to think creatively and to take initiatives instead of always needing adult guidance. But most importantly – free play is a a cornerstone in parenting happy children who are emotionally, socially and physically healthy and resilient.

Unfortunately the amount of time that children spend on free outdoor play has dropped by 90% since 1970. Meanwhile, attention disorders, narcissism and even lack of physical skills have increased by a lot. Play – The Danish Way is a great reminder of the value of children’s magical and fun universe. And the book not only reminds us to treasure children’s playtime, but also our own. Adults can and should still play – it is what happens when we become so absorbed in a project that we forget about time. Just like when a child refuses to go home because they are having a fun time playing with their friends. The same thing happens to adults every now and then when we create or do something we enjoy. Innovating, thinking and being creative is play and as a society I hope we will all keep up this ability. A playful home where parents show that they like to play – have hobbies, interests and fun – is encouraging for children’s desire to play. For your inspiration the book includes a play guide with ideas on how to facilitate your children’s desire to play and there are many things adults can do to help the play along.

I cannot encourage this book strongly enough. It provides the readers with a positive, warm and fun-loving view of the precious childhood without lecturing and preaching. Iben Dissing Sandahl writes with a love and passion for childhood which she passes on to her readers. Moreover, it is quick to read, well-structured and has many eyeopening and useful insights with a good balance of research and tangible examples. So parents, don’t feel bad if you are exhausted from entertaining your kids and have run out of stimulating activities. You will actually do them a favor by taking a step back and relax sometimes. Let children enjoy their world and create with their own imagination!

Below follows the full excerpt from Pippi Longstocking (freely translated from Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking in the South Seas, published in 1948):

“I never want to grow up,” he (Tommy) said determinedly.

“Me either,” said Annika.

“No, that isn’t something to strive for. Grown-ups never have fun. They just have a lot of boring work, stupid clothes and calluses and taxes.” (….)

“They don’t know how to play either,” said Annika. “Ooh, that you are forced to grow up!”

“Who said you have to!” asked Pippi. “If I’m not mistaken, I have some pills somewhere.”

“What kind of pills,” said Tommy.

“Some really good pills for those who don’t wish to grow up,” said Pippi and jumped down from the table.

I don’t know about you but I will try to find one of those pills for myself too and keep what is left of innocence, fun and magic. Apparently the pills look a lot like peas…

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