Curiousity, Monkeys, and Children: The Measure & Value of Play

This morning, as most mornings, my 3.6 year old popped into my room and into my bed. After snuggling with his little brother, and tossing him enthusiastically from his belly where he had hoisted him to hug and bounce and sort of toss him around, he jumped out of bed and headed straight to work. He picked up an imaginary object that required him to reach his arms out in front and stretch them around the invisible container, which demanded a deep “umphf” to lift.

“I have to get the maple syrup from this tree” he said as he hauled the still empty container over to the maple tree growing at the foot of the bed. Some careful fine motor work tapped the tree with something very tiny, that then filled the container super fast. Then he lugged the filled container  back over to the side of the bed. “Here mom” he said, “here’s your glass of syrup– it came out really fast today.”

To meet the world with this energy and imagination!  How do we cultivate that curiosity as adults & support its longevity in our children?

The preschool I run recently received a big box of books as donations. As the school is commercial free, I pulled out the ones with commercial characters and made a stack to donate. My son discovered the stack and has latched onto a “learn to read” Curious George story.

As we read it ,I noted the message in the oft repeated phrase: George was a curious monkey who tried not to be bad. The naturally curious monkey is always in trouble, being bad, etc. Sure, he always ends up being a hero, but it’s a bit of a convoluted message. He’s naturally curious, but his curiosity gets him in trouble. And, yet, it also, often saves the day for someone.

My son and I  have read another Curious George story, also from a pile to pass on,  in which George is visiting the dentist and a woman and child are with him in the waiting room. The child is afraid of the dentist so the mother goes first. While the mother is in the dentist chair (her daughter is in the waiting room), George sneaks into the exam room and spins her around and around in the chair as he tries out all of the levers and buttons on it. Just as George is about to get in trouble, the little girl comes in from the waiting room and laughs, thus undoing her fear and , lucky for George, transforming him from a trouble maker about to get a lecture into a saving force who has shown the little girl that the dentist can be fun.

So what’s the message?  Curiosity shouldn’t cause harm to someone else? Curiosity is only of value when it serves/helps someone else?  Curiosity needs to be monitored?  What is the value of curiosity? And how do we learn to navigate the natural impulse of curiosity within a community?

It seems to me that our relationship to curiosity reveals a lot about our relationship to play.

In young children, play is the work they need to engage in to learn about the world, to process their lives and the small and large concepts they are trying to make sense of for the first time: sameness/difference; life/death, separation/community, connection/independence, cause/effect.

In effect, these are concepts we never really have a solid hold on, even as adults. There are “whys” that our children will bring to us that are easier to answer, at least with the help of a little research. Some specific examples from this week: “Why is asphalt hard?” “Why is the sidewall grey and not black like the road?” ; “Will this stick grow in the ground with real roots if we put it there?”; “Why does icecream have to melt?”

But we would be harder pressed to simply answer the questions that play sometimes tries to sort out, or that pulse underneath what seems more superficial: what does it mean to be born? What happens when we die? What is permanent? What is power and how do I use it? How can I be a member of community and still have my own thoughts/desires?

Often, as adults, we grow accustomed to living as though we know the answers to these sorts of questions. And yet, most of us, when faced with an earnest 3 year old’s questions, the loss of a friend, an experience of being ostracized from a group we thought of as family, will find that the knowing was really much less known than we thought.

It’s really as though the play of children, by embracing the  question in the present moment as they play it/act it out,  is a more honest way to live with these questions.

I know that children need to come to understand how to live in the world, to learn how to respect others, how to share, how to care for themselves. But it also seems to me that in supporting them to understand this, we overstep our own knowledge a lot. We presume to know things that cannot be known.

How can we leave space for our children to live with the unknown, even as we model for them how to engage with the known/the seen/the measured? How can we allow ourselves more time and space to cultivate curiosity about those things we really cannot know? How can we honor the power of play and make more space for it– for our children, and for ourselves?

This teacher’s blog, and this particular blog post, illustrate the power of children’s play beautifully:  Marla McLean, Atelierista.

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