In the German language there is an interesting expression, grosse Kleinigkeit, which may be translated as "a great trifle", a thing which is small and yet of tremendous importance. This phrase aptly describes the precious, formative experience of childhood play. Sadly, play is often denied to modern American children by parents who slothfully or ignorantly immerse them in electronic media or grimly enroll them in regimented group activities.
Laura Wood at The Thinking Housewife has devoted several posts to this topic, including a contribution by Lawrence Auster (a social critic of the first water). In Why Do Children Play?, Wood disputes the typical adult view that play is nothing more than a way to fill up empty time:
In truth, a child is more than an adult-in-waiting. Child’s play forms not just the developing person, but the world at large. The child plays because he is seeking to understand and to know. He wants to create something new. When a child plays, he is an actor in the drama of existence. He chooses. He decides. He loves. He thinks. He is free. Child’s play fertilizes all of society. It awakens adults from the slumber of rationality. For children, the spiritual dimension of existence, with both its good and its evil, is always close at hand. Imagination is the apprehension of the unseen. For a child, there is no gulf between the physical and the moral, the visible and the invisible. All reality is one. Things that are just things for us are filled with meaning.
That is why elaborate toys are a mistake for children. Elaborate toys, especially mechanical toys, deaden the imagination. The world as it is elicits a response from a child. He needs the time and freedom to act upon his inner life. Boredom is a natural and necessary part of play, a phase of exhaustion, rest and preparation. Contrived play suppresses a child’s awareness and stupefies him.
Play is not play when it is regimented, when it is enacted in large groups or impersonal settings. In an institutional setting, the playing child is like a seedling in a drumming downpour. His tender shoots are battered. He is over-stimulated, too busy and distracted to hear the barely audible voices of inspiration within. He may age, but he does not grow. He is prepared for lifelong stupefication.
For a child to play well, he must be loved. There is no play without love. To enable play is an exalted task, an awesome responsibility. The adult who supervises and nurtures the playing child, disciplining and loving him, is far more powerful than the world will ever admit. With balls and dolls, blocks and swords, civilization is forged."Things that are just things for us [adults] are filled with meaning." Absolutely. I can remember using my boyhood imagination to transform a ballpoint pen into a space rocket, or the backyard lawn into a battlefield for toy soldiers, or the indoor balcony overlooking the family room into a precipice at the edge of a yawning abyss (to be plumbed by a brave action figure lowered into the depths on a string). Nothing this side of heaven will ever match the freedom and fervent creativity of those early years, and without them I would have grown into a duller and shallower man than I am.