The Dividing Line

When you start to understand how thin — or nonexistent! — the dividing line is between “playing” and “learning/growing”, suddenly so much more of what children do makes sense.

And suddenly so much more of when adults do/don’t choose to correct them about it seems…totally nonsensical or arbitrary, from a child’s point of view.

My 5yo “Apollo” is learning to read at school. My 3yo “Summer” is not learning to read at school, because that would be developmentally inappropriate. Summer sees Apollo painstakingly sounding out words in his environment; he does it absolutely everywhere we go.
He points to written text and says, “Sss, Tt, Ouh, Ppp! That sign says ‘stop!’”
She points to written text and says, “Buh, eh, eh, eh, ah! That says ‘Summer’!”

I could correct her and say that what she’s pointing to actually says “Give Way”, I could point out that literally none of the letters she’s pointing to make the sound that she’s claiming they make, I could point out how nonsensical it is that there would be a road sign with her name on it.

Instead I recognize what she’s doing: she’s playing at having a skill that she doesn’t yet have.

I don’t panic about it. I don’t tell myself that she’s never going to learn how to read the right way if I don’t correct her now. I give her space for play.

She also pretends to brush my hair by running a Tinkertoy through my hair. She also pretends to buy food at a shop by tapping a box with my old driver’s license. She also plays at having a lot of skills that she doesn’t have. Why would I be threatened or fearful for the future simply because this particular skill she’s playing with is an academic one?

Meanwhile, Apollo with his fledgling new skill of reading and his 5yo sense of morality in the world is beginning to realize that signs convey information to people who can read them, and that sometimes that information is rules, and that rules are generally a thing that one must follow just because…you must (because he’s 5 and that’s the level of moral reasoning 5yos are capable of).

He came to this realisation at one of our favorite play places. It has signs up that say you have to wear socks on the soft play equipment, and that food isn’t allowed. I had been telling him these two rules for over a year now, but only recently did he realize — thanks to pictures on the signs — that I wasn’t just making these things up or arbitrarily holding adult boundaries for whatever unknowable reason, but rather because I was following written rules on the sign.

He knows that the sign at the playplace says “No food in the playplace” and “You must wear socks in the playplace”*. He sagely instructs his sister (who hates socks) in this rule every time we go there.
So, he points to a painting in our house that has nothing to do with rules and announces, “That says you have to be quiet” when he feels like his sister is being too loud.
And he points to a random piece of mail with written text on it and announces “The rules say it’s my turn to play with the truck” when he thinks she’s had sufficient time with a toy he wants.

I could jump in to correct him and say that he’s holding a piece of junk mail or pointing at a painting of a poem. I could tell him that he’s not the one who’s allowed to make up rules in the world and try to make him feel more powerless (as if any 5yo in the world isn’t acutely aware of — and struggling against — their felt powerlessness!)

Instead I recognize what he’s doing: he’s playing at understanding law and morality (and reading).

I don’t panic about it. I don’t tell myself that he’s never going to understand what the rules really are if I don’t correct him now. I give him space for play.

He will also play with good guy/bad guy concepts once he discovers that. He plays with other powerful concepts like cars crashing or things blowing up or catching on fire. He plays with other peers and his sister, figuring out who gets to make the decisions in particular social situations, how give and take works, whether you can direct somebody to do something that you want or whether they will push back on you and in what circumstances both might happen. I am not threatened or fearful of the future simply because this one involves stating factually inaccurate logical proofs, because I know that what he’s doing is playing.


*As an aside that’s pretty dang cute but wasn’t exactly relevant to the rest of the post, he actually describes these rules as “You can’t have lunch and you can’t have feets.”