Yesterday the kids got a little wild. I was helping two kids sort out an argument when a whole gang of kids came running at me shouting, “Fuego! Fuego!” Translation: Fire! I felt a surge of panic as they grabbed my hands and pulled me to a spot where they had tried to set a plastic bottle on fire. They burst out laughing because they had tricked me; there was no big fire.
But, because one of the boys had found a lighter, they all decided that playing with fire was the activity of choice for the day. Well, if you can’t beat them join them, right? And besides, I’m pretty sure playing with fire is listed as one of the 50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do).
“Do you guys want to make a fire?” I asked. “Yea!!!” they cheered. I figured if they wanted to start a fire we might as well do it right. I pulled out a little barbecue and coals. I let one of the older boys be in charge of making the fire. I ran next door to the little corner store and for a few dollars bought some hot dogs and marshmallows. We set up some chairs around the barbecue, turned on some music, and roasted the hot dogs and marshmallows on sticks.
I could see the kids visibly relaxing and the tension leaving their bodies. There’s just something about a fire that creates a relaxed feel. “Que buen ambiente aqui.” commented one of the kids. Translation: What a good atmosphere here! Another girl leaned back in her chair and said, “This feels like Christmas.”
More than just a simple barbecue, this was their barbecue. They each smiled with a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. This was their idea and it was a good one. What started as mischief ended in a party for everyone with gooey, sticky smiles and laughter. So much joy.
And that’s just it. There has to be joy. I think sometimes we’re uncomfortable seeing children just have fun and laugh. I mean, we want them to have fun, but not too much fun. It might sound good in theory, but in reality we’re more comfortable seeing kids work – learn something, accomplish something, etc. I mean, what of value, after all, are they accomplishing by just playing? For us adults it seems like a waste of time.
“You are troubled at seeing him spend his early years in doing nothing. What! Is it nothing to be happy? Is it nothing to skip, play, and run around all day long? Never in his life will he be so busy as now. ” – Jean-Jacques Rousseau
The reality is, play is an essential part of healthy child development. It’s vital. During play children increase their social competence and emotional maturity. School success largely depends on children’s ability to interact positively with their peers and adults and these skills are rooted in play.
Even beyond that, play can help children heal from trauma. Many of the children in Jaco are living in really difficult circumstances. For a child whose development has been sidelined by trauma, using play can get them back on track. This problem is so prevalent, that some are calling it a silent epidemic. Listen to this.
Millions of our nation’s youngest children have experienced profound trauma in its many forms — domestic violence, abuse, neglect, natural disasters, and extreme poverty. Theirs is a tragic and largely silent epidemic. It receives a fraction of the attention directed at childhood illnesses, yet it cripples development, devastates young lives, and shortens life expectancy. A young, developing brain is highly sensitive to stress and will not fully develop emotional, social, and cognitive capacity if the child is continuously responding to threats during the first few years of life. Consumed by fear and powerlessness, traumatized children stop playing, connecting with others and experiencing joy in the world around them. In the absence of intervention, the impact of early childhood trauma often has devastating long-term effects on their psychological and physical health.
PLAY CAN HEAL:
Playmakers are acutely aware of this national epidemic. They are on the frontlines and experience it every day. Yet they see hope and a healing solution. They know that the sensitivity of young, developing brains also means that children have an impressive ability to bounce back when they receive support from adults who care about them. Interventions centered on play are especially promising in this regard. Play is the medium through which children explore, learn, connect and fully engage with the surrounding world. It is an essential activity through which children form healthy attachments, discover the world around them, and develop a foundation of competence, self-worth, and joy that can impact them for a lifetime.