Are Games Play?

Forgive me, this may seem like a pointless question. And if you regularly spend time with children over the age of five, you’d likely whole heartedly say “yes”. But I’ve spent the last year thinking deeply about engaging with children under the age of four. In all honesty, mostly about toddlers. And I can’t help feel discomfort when I think of the purpose of games. Pedagogically. Developmentally. And meaningfully.

These thoughts are the result of being a teaching assistant (reading and evaluating pre-service educators programming ideas for young children), a previous practicum student in Quality Initiatives for early years programs (where I heard supervisors reflect on their quality goals), and a masters student studying early childhood educators’ workplaces. It is likely also because I am reading From Teaching to Thinking and The Goodness of Rain by Ann Pelo, and I am being challenged in my thinking about what are quality, meaningful, and transformative early learning experiences. Why are we replicating the use of games? Is there a purpose beyond developmental appropriateness? It feels like there is a difference between experiences with routines and games. For example, I feel that shared routines (e.g., I chase children with a puppet before we begin our morning meeting), action songs that are requested again and again (e.g., “baby shark”), or even experiences of sharing informal rules and patterns (e.g., watching two children run back and forth in a space and copy each other) then formalized games that have one way to be played.*

This feels like the difference, in my mind, between informal games with rules, and well-known games passed on my generations, such as duck duck goose or musical chairs. When I read Ann’s stories, and I think about the time I’ve spent with children, the use of games with toddlers feels so incredibly useless to young humans. I would so much rather use myself as a tool to facilitate wonder, spark inquiry, visit a forest, observe an inset, or inspect a crack in the sidewalk than pass on knowledge of childhood games. I just feel so much resistance to spending my time and energy on these things. I don’t feel like there is an authentic purpose to many of these games, often they are exclusive in nature by eliminating someone each round, and I don’t see how they support the development of dispositions for lifelong learning. I also don’t see a clear connection with Ontario’s early learning framework, which is centred on the foundations of wellbeing, engagement, expression, and belonging. Are games even engaging if it’s not your turn?

I should probably back up here and provide some context for my opinions. As a child, I did not like games and I found most of them intimidating. I was fairly sensitive and the “thrill” or excitement of a game was easily mis-felt as anxiety. As an adult, I still don’t really like games. I love to share experiences with people, and when and if we come up with a game spontaneously, I love it. But I hate entering into a kind of dynamic that is arbitrarily designed, easily forgotten, prescribed for strategy that I can’t yet forsee, and that plots me against my loved ones. I just don’t find most games enjoyable. They’re up there with not understanding social rules in certain spaces/places. Which, I might add, is not because I don’t value cultural norms, routines, or rituals. I’m someone who actually enjoys things like silly small talk, the awkward “hello” passing someone in the street, and the game of how long to I hold the door for the person behind me?!? Those things have value and meaning to me.

I should also consider that perhaps I don’t like games because I’m not good at them. But, that wouldn’t be correct. I actually am often good at the games I do try, even if I’m new at them. I’m often called “smart” (which I could spend a whole other post deconstructing), and I know how to feign a good time, joke about what’s happening, and poke fun at my own mistakes. I don’t think it’s that I’m too serious or too awkward. I think it’s just that games are SO random to me, and they often are not introduced in a gentle, meaningful way. They begin abruptly and it’s a sink-or-swim mentality that I know I do well with. Why waste this skill on a game, when I have grad school to survive? Anyway. I digress.

Beyond my own perspective, I have started to wonder about the developmental significance and appropriateness of games even for preschooler aged children and beyond this age range. How can you determine when children are developmentally able and interested in playing Duck Duck Goose? On one hand, I can think of many developmental skills that can be facilitated through participation in these games. Like gross motor skills, expressive language, sharing space and resources, learning social rules… But on the other hand, I feel that these games are so incredibly arbitrary, unauthentic, and, in some cases, a result of lack of adult imagination to partner in more spontaneous versions of play. There are probably well-outlined answers to these perplexing thoughts, so I likely need to just do some googling. But before I did that, I wanted to document this naive disorientation in case any readers wanted to join me in this journey.

*Note: as I type this I begin to feel that the lines between these examples of what is a “game” and what is a routine or pattern are becoming more and more blurry for me. Perhaps I can actually see a rationale for when, how, and why to include games, and their pedagogical importance for demonstrating relevant concepts. Of course, the intentional use of games can be quite useful for creating a sense of belonging, understanding social rules, and for creating healthy experiences of joy, competition, and how to respond to all of the feelings that arise from things like not winning, working hard, being exhausted, and anticipating your turn. I get that.

But are games play?

Play, as I know it, is voluntary, purposeful, and done for its own sake or enjoyment. I don’t understand why there is an emphasis on gamification within play. I briefly consulted the Right to Play website, and the first image is a child with a backpack, and the second are two photos juxtaposed: one of children kicking a soccer ball and one of professional athletes playing soccer. These suggest to me that the purposes of play is for either school-readiness or professional-level entertainment and skill. Neither of these reflect play for its own sake, nor do they represent why play is meaningful and useful to children during childhood. Even when I read the UN right’s of the child, the elements of play are focused on games. Childhood is so much more than preparation for the future and deserves its own quality of life. Have we forgotten what play looks like outside of games? Beyond rules, there is so much room for playfulness, rigor, competition, and measurement of excellence. I wonder if in this reliance and focus on games and rules, might we forgotten the value of spontaneity, engagement without reward, and crafting our own journeys. In higher-ed I often hear that undergrads don’t have skills to self-direct their learning, to chart their own course, and/or to manage how to meet competing priorities. But learning processes are disorienting and knotted, and they require so much inner navigation to begin with. Do we train children to learn rules of specific games and then punish them later in life for not learning the larger games of life, learning, inquiry, and love? That’s a question well beyond the limits of my knowledge, but something I am pondering.

All of this, of course, must be contextualized based on each group of children, what their shared interests are, and what developmental skills they currently have opportunities to engage with. Should I ever have a group of children asking to play Duck Duck Goose again and again, I will (and have) honoured that. And I have participated whole heartedly in the joy and journeys within games such as this one. I think in writing this, though, I have realized that questioning the use of games is entirely appropriate, fair, and necessary. They have a (clearly) place in childhood, but they may or may not meet every purpose in my care, pedagogy, and exploration of interests with children. I likely won’t be able to look at games the same, and would like to be quite intentional and where, when, and how I encourage the use of games with children. I plan to consult a few more resources on the use of games in early childhood to better understand in which situations games are a valuable approach to supporting children in their play/learning/development.

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