The Indian Express | Rohini Nilekani writes: If we let ourselves be led by children in play, could we rediscover simple joys?

Jun 10, 2024


It is not a frivolous activity, but essential to human development.

Have you observed with attention what a child does when playing on her own? She is absorbed, muttering, doing random things, putting unexpected things together. She may smile, giggle, frown. She is herself and becoming her future self.

You may remember similar moments from your childhood, when tactile observation and imagination were your magic wands, transporting you into a world of wonder.

June 11 is the first International Day of Play. A total of 140 countries were co-sponsors of the United Nations General Assembly Resolution. This is a victory for the advocacy by global samaaj organisations, amplifying the voice of children everywhere. Today, around the world, adults are encouraged to democratise the joy of play.

Why has it come to this, that we need a special reminder to recognise what should be common wisdom?

There are a million reasons, but one seems obvious. Ever since universal mass schooling adopted a competitive model to create workers for the Industrial Revolution, learning became divorced from play. Education became a means to an economic end. Parental attention and anxiety became vested in pushing children to be the best in class, in the examination, and hopefully, therefore, in their careers.

For middle-class and elite children, this meant less time to be left alone to play. Even long vacations had to be crammed with summer camps or serious hobbies. For the poor, play can be a luxury anyway, and often unsafe. I will never forget a scene in Khagaria, Bihar, when I saw four-year-olds splashing about in a small water body. What fun, I thought. It turned out they were catching fish for the evening meal. Across the spectrum, play is undervalued or scarce.

Then new neuroscience emerged to support what our gut already understood. Learning is sharpest and quickest in the early years. Cognition, social skills, emotional well-being and physical growth are largely developed in the first eight years of a person’s life. More than a million neural connections form every second in a young brain. But growth is non-linear. There are dips and surges, many dependent on age and nutrition, others environment-related. Early childhood experiences can impact brain architecture to establish either robust or fragile foundations for lifelong learning and well-being.

Then the scientists told us that play enhances learning. Free play allows children to build explanatory systems — implicit theories or schemas — to help organise their knowledge. It also helps to develop their intuition, which theorists have long established as critical for scientific or artistic discoveries.

But play must be just that — play. The Hindi word “khel” describes it perfectly. Khel is joyful, unmediated. Gowda V K, Ravi Kumar C P, Goyal R and Sidhwani S, in their article, ‘Childhood Development, Learning, and Education: A Focus on Nonlinear Learning and Play’ in the Indian Journal of Neurology, say, “An essential requirement of learning through play is that children should have agency over the experience and must be guided or supported rather than instructed or directed.”

When children play, it can lead to more neuroplasticity in the prefrontal cortex, better information processing and behavioural flexibility. Play fosters many skills, like language development, conflict resolution, collaboration and self-advocacy. In the age of AI, where the future of work is so uncertain, free play could become the surprise differentiator, to unlock young people’s creativity and critical thinking.

Through EkStep Foundation, we recently made a 90-second film called Bachpan Manao, Badhte Jao (Celebrate Childhood, Keep Growing). In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, we hoped adult caregivers could turn their minds away from learning loss to the abundance of opportunity around them. Children learn from everything; it is up to us to kindle their curiosity.

Through the short film, we wanted to rekindle wonder as a public good.

One mother in Satara responded with an “aha” moment. “My childhood was free, but I don’t allow my child the same freedom to explore. I will.”

An urban father fretted, “I want my child to play, but where is the space?”

Increasingly, psychiatrists and biologists report dangers from a nature deficit in urban children. If this constrains the middle class, imagine the situation of children in slums. I have met children who have not even seen a butterfly. Yet these future citizens will have to learn resilience against climate change. How can we redesign our cities with more lung space and play space to reconnect children with nature?

Substantial research now confirms that a play-deprived childhood leads to negative personal and societal outcomes. Psychiatrist Stuart Brown, founder of the US-based National Institute for Play, has spent decades studying the connection between play and healthy human development. “The adaptive tolerance and empathy toward others that is learned in early preschool through rough-and-tumble play is really a fundamental part of our having tolerance for people who are different than we are,” said Brown. Play is “not frivolous and not just for kids, but something that is an inherent part of human nature,” he added.

Hopefully, the International Day of Play will refocus the energies of caregivers and educators around the world.

If we mindfully permit ourselves to let children be, perhaps we can lighten the burden of child-rearing. If we let ourselves be led by children in play, could we rediscover the simple joys we have lost?

Why not find out by participating in the UNICEF India and Bachpan Manao campaign — #houroffreeplay challenge — on June 11?

Come, let’s play.