Today, we’re going to talk about “meaningful” play. it sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it? Play isn’t meaningful. “Meaningful” suggests a goal, a structure, a plan. Play has no goal. It has no structure. It isn’t planned.
At least, not in the sense we plan out a lesson, a project, or even our day. Play can have a goal, even if it’s simply a goal of getting out and away from a controlling adult so the child can explore and experiment. Play can have a structure. How often do we watch a random group of children, who may not even know each other, run off to play independently, only to organize into some kind of game or story? Play can have a plan. A child may look forward to a play session because they want to act like they’re a favorite character and pretend they can do the things that character can do, be it leaping tall buildings, opening an ice cream shoppe, or just saving others.
When we talk about meaningful play, what we’re really talking about is a play session where a child sets out with some sort of idea of how they want to play. She may play her own plans in harmony with other children’s games, or she may just play on their own. Maybe she wants to try on a new role or to play out her own take on a new or favorite story, or maybe she just wants to figure out a change in her world. We may have no idea what she’s doing as she runs around pretending, or we may feel a bit frightened at what she’s pretending, but to that child, it’s just a chance to figure out for herself what’s going on.
The point here is that play can be meaningful to the child. But that meaning comes from the child, and makes sense only to that child (unless she wants to talk to us or her friends about her play). It can’t be created outside the child for the child, and it never should be. We can create frameworks for play, but the true meaning of any play session is going to be personal to that child. And that’s all right.