Have you ever felt that awkwardness of saying something to a group of people and the response is complete silence? Not a word, not a smile, only quiet. Even though the silence may not be long, the waiting for any response drags giving you time to think again about what you have just said.
This happened to me after giving a short talk about ‘The Power of Play’ for the Western Cape Department of Health First Thousands Days network meeting. I waited in the silence wondering what I had said that caused such a still response. Could it have been that I ended my talk with the words?
“If relationships matter, play is the medium”
The First Thousand Days programme is a national initiative promoting the well-being of infants from conception to two years. The three pillars of the programme are Grow, Love and Play. As with so many programmes, the focus is on nutrition and survival as first priorities. Attachment and bonding have been added as part of love. Play sits poorly defined in a space that is not clear, as it is not seen as an equal priority to other more complex and demanding needs. Play is seen to be so simple that everyone must obviously know about it and thus it is not given the attention it deserves.
The theme that “Relationships matter” has become key in the First thousand Days campaign and also the recently launched WHO Nurturing Care Framework. My reason for making the simple and yet strong statement “If relationships matter, play is the medium” is that play connects humans. When the group members at the First Thousand Days meeting emerged out of their silence, their first response was, ‘yes!’ Play connects even strangers and diverse people together in a fun and equal way. A story was told about a new group of mothers from different backgrounds who were meeting for the first time. They were standing around uncomfortably looking at each other - until they played a simple game, which was ‘Stand up if your baby has messed all over you’, and ‘Hands up if you are tired from sleep deprivation’ etc. Standing, putting hands up, laughing and recognizing that each had a similar experience immediately connected the group.
Then, after my presentation, stories about play and memories of positive play experiences flowed out of the silence, such as cooking with grandmother, playing with sand, clay and water and making things out of scrap. Play forms our experiences and relationships with each other. This forms us into the people we become and the memories that we treasure.
Play is the link between the other two themes in the First thousand Days programme, which is Grow and Love. Family meal times can be an important time when stories are shared, jokes are told, tears are shed, and food is enjoyed (if there is food available for which we must always be thankful). We can no longer afford to encourage adequate nutrition or the survival of young children without also promoting development and play. Surviving and thriving in childhood go hand in hand together.
Play is not only for children. We all need to play. Play is good for everyone. Adults who are involved in play, such as sport, creative arts, music, and dance, are more likely to be better connected to other people and have a more positive outlook on life. Team building exercises are mostly playful and bring relationships together.
There is much to be said about playing with children because of the joy that playfulness gives to adults. Inter-generational play is special. It has contributed towards better and positive aging and well-being in elderly people. Many studies have been done of preschool children playing with the elderly in old age homes with positive results. Play connects adults and children across generations.
Play is the starting point of creating an imagination for acting out what children see but also what they cannot see or ‘thinking out of the box’, without fear of making mistakes. This is play. I have a feeling that adults who can imagine and think differently are those who are pushing boundaries and changing society. Think of the Wright brothers for their play that developed over time into aeroplanes. We learn through play. Play is so often underestimated for its role in learning, that we limit play to focus on reaching learning goals.
Let us be open to the simplicity of play that helps us to find ourselves and each other, no matter our age and ability.
My day started off well when I met ‘Blessing’, who was a cheerful young man living out his name. I couldn’t help myself and asked him the origin of his name. “I was a blessing to my mother when I was born, so she called me ‘Blessing’, my official name on my ID”. How wonderful to start life with an identity of being a blessing to a mother. Such joy and affirmation to the unfolding life of a delightful person. I can identify with this mother who was indeed blessed with her new born son. I have three sons who are each in their own way a blessing to me. I can also identify with this mother who opened her heart to baby Blessing; he was her blessing and she was his.
Children are our biggest blessings in our communities. They bring joy, laughter and delight with their new discoveries. Children however are just in themselves a blessing without even having to do something. I was reminded of this playing with my new friend, Anya. When I met Anya, a three year old who was initially shy, I even wondered if she had lost her tongue. She watched me and worked out that I could be a reasonable playmate. Her observations may have been accurate, and we made up a game together that involved her sitting on my rhythmic lap that was a pretend wave in the sea and enjoying the waves until she slid off onto the ground and rolled around in the shallow waters. There was no toy, just a simple game, and a time of being playful.
Opening myself up to this ‘wave game’ was a choice and became a mutual joy. Anya had fun playing on a human wave, and I enjoyed being a wave. I have always secretly wanted to be a wave. Anya was a blessing to me and I was a blessing to her. This joy lifted both of our spirits.
It is perhaps hard to think that as parents we can be a blessing to our children, especially if our own parents did not delight in us. This is not important to a child, as they see their parents as a blessing, no matter what. Children in their innocence see beyond parents’ insecurities and are open to absorb any adoration. But to be honestly enjoyed and loved is a huge blessing in itself for anyone. We are learning something about love; children learn about love by first being loved and enjoyed. It didn’t surprise me that ‘Blessing’ was such a cheerful person and this was his world view; his mother had shown her attitude and love towards him by choosing his name, my Blessing.
Let us all choose to be open to little children and the blessing that they bring to us. Let us be open to the challenges children face, illnesses, disabling conditions, failures and disappointments, adoption, effects of drug, alcohol and emotional abuse. This is not the choice of any child. Let us look beyond all this harsh reality of life and choose to see each and every child in our community as a blessing. By every child, I do mean every child including those with disabilities. If we are open to children who are different, and ready to play with them, we may see their own uniqueness and the joy that they bring to us. Every child deserves nurturing care and opportunities to reach their own potential.
Let us be a blessing to all children. Let all children be a blessing to us.