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Catholic Activity: Lessons From Play



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Mary Reed Newland discusses the often-overlooked fact that play is of inestimable value to children, for it gives them true joy, which is a reflection of the Father's joy in Heaven.


There are two kinds of things a child learns from play: the character things, and the joy things. Most play, when it is successful, makes joy so predominate over all the other effects that we ought to value it for this alone. Because joy is a reflection of our Father Who is in Heaven. It is a tasting of heavenly joy. Children don't say, "Oh joy!" but "Golly, we had fun!" But it means the same thing. And early childhood is the time to connect play with God and the joys of eternity.

I have a suspicion that certain people are not convinced that this will work, perhaps that it sounds like mealy twaddle. But consider: early childhood is not a time of doubts. When taught very young that God provides, and is the source of all blessings, children simply understand it as true. It is part of their wonderful wisdom.

The other night one of our boys was watching the fire. When we were alone he said: "I love watching the fire. I was thinking God is awful good to give us a nice house with a fireplace so we can have fires in it."

Perhaps he will not think of it in quite that way when he is older. He may think then that a fireplace is a blessing because it invites companionship, and his friends enjoy coming to his house and eating in front of the fire. But he has the right thing first, and when the day comes to reflect as a mature person on the joys of this life, he does not have to discover their Source. He knows it already.

Sharing, which is probably the first and most obvious of the lessons to be learned in play, is difficult and has to be learned painfully. It is learned faster when we take pains to praise sharing when we see it. Not sharing can bring play to a dismal end; we can teach children about it by pointing this out also. Using the same motive as before, we can remind him that playmates are other Christs, and we must be as considerate and gentle with them as we would with the Christ Child Himself. This is very difficult, especially when playmates seem most of the time to be piggish contenders for wagons and balls and blocks or the coveted roles of leader, mother, and queen. But the same principles apply and it helps children to learn surrender by recalling Our Lord's counsel that it is better to act as servant than master, to take the lower place than the higher.

Also, in a nice way, we can help them see overpossessiveness, bossiness, brutality in play as signs that people do not understand what God wants of them or how He meant them to love. Also — and this helps immensely — we can smooth resentment against brutish playmates many times by reminding children to pray for them (privately!). Not only has this smoothed resentment, but it has had a noticeable effect on the playmates. And why not?

No Christian is obliged however, to stand by and allow his children to be victimized forever by playmates. Up to a certain point, he can learn lessons in Christian graciousness by giving in. Past that point, he can often become badly hurt (physically and spiritually) by becoming a kind of professional goat. It is too much to expect a child to rise to the heights of detachment every time he faces a conflict, and when he is hopelessly outweighed, out-voiced, and pushed around time after time, it is well to remove him and substitute other companions or some other form of play. There are such things as self-respect and discrimination to be learned, as well as justice to be upheld; and we do neither our children nor their playmates any favor by allowing neighborhood tyrants to dominate without any correction.

This teaching of Christian behavior does not stop with our own children. We are supposed to help all men find Christ. Often abuses can be smoothed out and eliminated by plunging to the heart of the matter and reminding the neighborhood bully that he has an obligation in God's sight to protect, not victimize, the smaller members of his society. The drive for security is usually the root of such bullying and a boy who had to find it by dominating can often find greater satisfaction playing the role of protector.

A friend of mine settled such a conflict between two boys by inviting them into her home one day during Lent and reminding them of the meaning of Lent, and of Easter. "He did it to teach you how to love each other. You have an obligation to Him to try to get along." She helped them sort out their whole altercation, piece by piece, and when they analyzed it each could see he was partly to blame. An uncomfortable rift between two neighboring families was nicely avoided, and the boys were grateful for her help. "Not that they thanked me in so many words," she says, "but they went out hanging on each other." It takes time and patience and understanding, and most of all faith, to appreciate that the aggressors of this world are such because they are unhappy and have not tried hard enough to love.

Activity Source: We and Our Children by Mary Reed Newland, Image Books, 1961