Children are masters of play. Even if they do not have special tools or toys, a child’s imagination can transform a piece of cardboard into a race track, or a garbage bag into a beautiful dress. Their faces shine brightest when they are playing their favorite games.
But how does play impact children? In this article, we discuss two topics with Keio University School of Medicine’s Professor Dr. Takao Takahashi: “children and play” and “modern parenting.” Conducting the interview is our MIKI HOUSE Birth Preparation website and father of two, Staff I.
Play does not need to be an extension of learning
I: First I would like to ask you about children and play. Lately, I’ve been hearing many people talking about “learning through play.” I kind of understand what they mean… but what exactly do children learn from playing?
Dr. Takahashi: Hmm, I don’t really understand the meaning of “learning through play.” Children play because they want to play, it’s fun. They’re not playing to learn something.
I: That’s true.
Dr. Takahashi: When children play, it should be an unconditionally fun and immersive experience. That’s what makes it valuable. I would even say that usefulness shouldn’t be a requirement for play. But, play is important without doubt. That is because for children, the world of play is “society” itself.
I: Um… What does that mean?
Dr. Takahashi: Children experience society through play. They naturally learn the rules of society by immersing themselves in play. Even while they are having fun, they accumulate small mistakes, like breaking toys or making someone cry. Mistakes are a part of play. Through these experiences they understand the wonder of having fun without fearing mistakes.
I: So they still end up learning?
Dr. Takahashi: Of course, as a result, they will learn something from play. For example, they may develop the ability to find fun in anything. This is enough to be “learning.”
I: The ability to find fun in anything?
Dr. Takahashi: Yes. As I’ve mentioned before, our everyday life is full of “seeds of interest” (see our previous article What Parents Can Do to Nurture Their Children’s Interests), and if we do not have the ability to notice and enjoy these, life would be bland. This is true for adults too. People who are truly happy are able to find the joy in their job, parenting, chores, and their regular lives. Children that can find “seeds of interest” or “seeds of fun” in their seemingly boring everyday lives will be able to have that much more fun every day. And I think it’s important to nurture these abilities by playing.
I: It’s true that I see children invested in seemingly trivial things while playing. That time must be important for them.
Dr. Takahashi: Yes. I do want to say that I question these “play studies” that I hear about these days at nurseries and schools. I don’t know how to put this, but I just don’t think play should merely be an extension to learning.
I: I see… Since play is important by itself, it doesn’t need to be a means to an end. I’ve thought before that it would be nice to have added value to play, but I guess that’s just a parent’s ego.
Playtime with others is more valuable than learning by yourself
I: Though there is no doubt play is important, some parents may be keen to reduce playtime to increase study time. They may think play is important, but they want to encourage studying more for their child’s future. It seems like quite a dilemma, but what do you think?
Dr. Takahashi: In general studying is done alone, or with an adult. But a principle of early childhood education is letting children play with each other. When not sleeping or eating, early childhood should be about playing. In particular, I think that play time is crucial in developing social skills, communication skills, adaptability and empathy. But, when children are playing with their friends, parents should not try to make them learn something from it. It’s part of the human experience to unconsciously gain these skills through play.
I: So should they play with friends their age? Or is it more fun to hang out with kids of different ages and types?
Dr. Takahashi: Children should decide for themselves who they play with and how. I think it’s not a matter of good or bad. You see this happen at preschools and nurseries every day, but children will play with those around their age if left alone. Moreover, they may play pretend. Playing pretend involves many roles, like baby or customer or a hospital patient. They are playing a member in society.
I: So children mimic the adult world while playing.
Dr. Takahashi: Right. I often ask parents who worry that their children have autism or ADHD “can they play with children their age?” If the answer is yes, they can relax. However, some children just prefer to play with children younger than themselves, so there’s no need to panic even if the answer is no. Medically speaking, examinations may show that they have problems, but as long as they make relatively normal development and are able to enjoy their everyday lives, I think it’s best to not worry so much and allow your children to play as they wish.
I: As they play with their friends, they learn how to cooperate and their empathy grows as well. They also learn patience. By interacting and connecting with each other, they develop a sense of independence and take action with confidence. The world of play may be much deeper than us adults think!
Don’t get caught up in “correct parenting”
We pivot here to ask Dr. Takahashi about “modern parenting.” Though sometimes the “back in my day...” stories from our parents or grandparents are useful, most of the time their advice just doesn’t apply to current times. But what changes has Dr. Takahashi noticed in parenting during the past few decades?
I: You have been a pediatrician for 37 years and must have met many children and parents. How have you seen parenting change in that time?
Dr. Takahashi: I think that the essence of child-parent relationships has not really changed, and that it can only change at the same rate as human evolution. Maternal and paternal instinct, and the way children feel about their parents doesn’t really change.
I: But society and the child’s environment can change.
Dr. Takahashi: Yes, that can change dramatically with the times. One of the biggest changes is the huge amount of information you can get from the internet. Not only that, but most of the parenting information you can find is true. But actually, it’s a problem that the information is true. I think it’s important to make a distinction between knowing correct information, and incorporating that information into your own parenting.
I: Do you mean that the information can result in mistakes?
Dr. Takahashi: There’s a big difference between knowing something is delicious and thinking you need to eat everything that is delicious, right? If you ate everything just because it’s delicious you will get a stomachache. In the same way, you don’t have to use a parenting technique just because it’s correct.
I: I see… It’s impossible to implement every technique on the internet.
Dr. Takahashi: In the past, the basics of parenting were learned through grandparents/other parents, and the rest was learned through personal experience and making your own mistakes. But now we are in an era where you can see various parenting techniques, articles on what to feed your children, and other information that you don’t need at a glance.
I: And the less confident you are, the more likely you’ll search for answers on the internet.
Dr. Takahashi: That’s exactly it. It’s a vicious cycle. If you start comparing your own parenting to the “correct” parenting you’ll find online, you will always lose. Your parenting will become a losing game. You’ll read one article and think your child has a developmental disability, or that they are behind in some way.
I: Even though you don’t actually know them, comparing your own child to a child on the internet… it happens a lot.
Dr. Takahashi: The difference in the rate at which different children grow and develop is larger the younger the children are. Comparing your child to the arbitrary “standard” the internet has chosen is nonsense. I want to emphasize that even standards have variations. When to start walking, when to start walking, and even height and weight. Though the word “standard” is used for these, most of them are actually “averages,” and being slightly off does not necessarily equal an abnormality.
I: It’s so important for parents to realize that.
Dr. Takahashi: Parenting is a precious time for children and parents to have real-life experiences together. Since children eventually grow up, parenting time is limited. Don’t waste that time being swayed by other people’s information, and don’t forget to have fun! Just as your children will find joy in their everyday lives, you must believe in your child, and believe in your own love for your child. Spend time with your child as you feel you should, and that will probably be the best way to raise them. If you can be as invested in nurturing your child as they are invested in play, that would be the best. Parents only realize how fun and valuable parenting is when it’s over.
I: Parenting is really difficult, but the happiness and growth my children bring more than makes up for it. I want to enjoy spending time with my children and build a good relationship with them. Thank you again for today’s talk!
Dr. Takao Takahashi
Keio University School of Medicine, Head Professor of Pediatrics, Medical Doctor specializing in General Pediatrics and Pediatric Neurology
After graduating from Keio University School of Medicine in 1982, Dr. Takahashi served in the Department of Pediatric Neurology at Harvard’s Massachusetts General Hospital and as a neurology lecturer at Harvard Medical School. He returned to Japan in 1994, and has been active as both doctor and professor at Keio University Pediatrics since. His hobby is running, and his best marathon time is 3 hours 7 minutes at the 2016 Tokyo Marathon, earning the nickname of “fastest pediatric professor in Japan”.