I've been thinking this week about play-based care and how it prepares the child for later life and schooling. People often ask me what is the difference between Montessori and Waldorf as both have some similarities, yet can often be so very different. I could reflect on the many aspects of each, which are both very inspiring and lovely but to synthesize it simply it is this: Montessori believed that work was the child's play. In Waldorf environments it is that play is the child's work. In other words, Maria Montessori believed that a child felt whole and sound when they were doing real work such as washing dishes, folding napkins, or raking leaves. On the other hand, play as the child's work is a way of saying that the child comes to wholeness through unstructured, imaginary play with others and with simple toys such as cloth dolls, and even sticks, stones, water, and mud. So which is true? They are both true, and in a play-based environment, they experience both in a deep and unhurried way. However, I can say that play can be much more work for the child than actual "work".
In an environment where the focus is on play, both independent and social, the child begins to develop the mental flexibility it takes to become a participant in the broader world. They begin to watch one another for signs of willingness to play; the nuances of their various friends' personalities. There are disagreements about toys and what to play that must be worked through. Some children must find boldness to proclaim "I'm playing with this now!" and some must control the impulse to grab what it is they want. What a wonderful time to learn these lessons! How terrible to be rushed through this experience or not to have it at all. There is also the joy of discovering a new way to play with one another and finding that you've happened upon a brand new experience to share with your fellow friend. So how is this preparation for the broader world? In today's world, which is fast and so busy that it can become isolating, it is particularly important that we develop social capabilities in our children. When the time is not taken in early years to allow children to experience one another through play, we begin to see antisocial behavior arise further down the road, and I believe we see signs of this in the news headlines everyday.
Play is certainly work. In many ways it is far easier to just have children working individually on separate tasks, or to keep them so busy that there is no time for disagreeing with one another. Many personalities (mine included), find life easier when you go about your day doing things independently. And yet it is so important that we allow our children the time to "bump up against" one another and share each others space. In doing so, they also discover mutually pleasing games and take joy in making one another laugh. They watch one another closely and see how they can contribute to the play. It does mean that kids are exhausted at the end of the day, and they certainly need a mid-day rest to recover. The child's brain is equipping itself to live in community with fellow humans. This is a major human task and it requires rest!
Work is certainly part of the child's play. There is pride that comes from applying effort to a task and being able to finally achieve it. Joy also comes from the process of work as well. But the role of play in the lives of children affects them further down the road. Allowing them the time and space needed to play imaginatively with one another gives them the capacity for understanding their peers. Compassion and patience are only a couple of the learned skills that can only come about from time spent in interaction with others. So I like to think of play as an exercise in the improvement of human beings, and that takes some work!