It happens almost every day. Our two-year-old sits at the top of the stairs, motions for me to sit next to him, and gestures to the family portrait as he points out, “Mama? Daddy? Baby?” Together, we scoot down the stairs one at a time, studying that portrait, repeating the familiar— delighting in recognition. Oftentimes, he climbs up those same stairs, reaching out to touch his brothers’ artwork hanging on our art gallery wall. Later in the day, as we walk along the road, he stops to marvel at an ant that crosses our path or a bird flying high overhead. This young child brings to my attention these many wonders that I normally fail to notice. He helps me to see the beauty and awe of the everyday things of my everyday life. The truth is, without a child by my side, I forget to wonder. I forget to take notice of the world around me. I forget to play. As this journey of parenthood unfolds, I discover more and more that I have much to learn from my children.
Every stage my children go through is precious to me, but there exists something extra special about the memories we make during these early childhood years. Have you ever noticed how a young child possesses an uncanny knack for finding pleasure in the mundane? Preschoolers use all of their senses to soak in their surroundings. They delight. They discover. They wonder. Childhood is a celebration of curiosity—not just for my children but also for me. It is a beautiful gift from God to savor, yet we tend to rush it away. How often we race through this stage of life, moving on to the next stage of slogging through to-do lists and ball practices and workbooks, all for the sake of checking the box.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. once stated, “Men do not quit playing because they grow old; they grow old because they quit playing.” This convicts me. As the responsibilities of life have pressed upon me, my sense of wonder and playful learning has indeed waned. Somewhere along the way, I quit taking the time to tinker and explore—just for the sake of learning—how something works. At some point, I stopped reading for pleasure and started reading out of necessity. I eventually even forgot to take the time to pause and observe the life and beauty that surrounds me. In a society where play is discouraged and standards are emphasized, it is no wonder that some of us have grown so old. How encouraging it is to know that we can rediscover the fountain of youth right in our own homes through the gift of childhood!
If wisdom starts with wonder, and childhood is full of wonder, then we as parents have a great opportunity to return to a state of wonder with our children and, as a result, grow in greater wisdom alongside them. We can instill in ourselves a creative moral imagination by exploring nature, poetry, stories, art, and music with them. We can spend this special time marveling at the beauty of our world through the eyes of our children as we rediscover the art of playing. But what does it mean to learn through play? How do we play when we have forgotten how to do so? For answers to these questions, I turn to the real experts in such matters, our youngest two sons, whom I consider to be much more knowledgeable than I in the art of playing.
- Children ask for us to read stories to them over and over again. Let’s cultivate their imaginations by reading—and even memorizing—favorite folklores, fairytales, and fables. Let’s allow them to dress up as heroes and heroines as they relive the adventures of times past. Perhaps we should even dress up with them.
- Children wonder about the world around them. Let’s take a nature walk with no goal except to stop and marvel with them as we gaze upon the sky, the land, and the animals scurrying before us. We can learn much by simply opening our eyes.
- Children delight in the rhythm of rhyme. Let’s build their linguistic development by reading poetry together.
- Children enjoy patterns and colors. Let’s enjoy the entrancing world of picture books not just for the words or stories but for the pictures themselves. Let’s provide them with craft supplies and watch what beautiful masterpieces are unveiled as they embrace their creative abilities.
- Children are active. Let’s provide them with time to expend energy as they explore the great outdoors. We can allow them to build up our own imaginations as we climb the playground and make-believe with them.
- Children love to play with numbers. Math in its most natural form is not a dull task but a tool for experimenting with what we observe and for gaining an understanding of our surroundings. Before introducing young children to textbooks or worksheets, let’s spend time with math manipulatives. Children delight in playing with blocks, clocks, and balances. They enjoy counting money as they set up pretend supermarkets. Building towers, making designs, and playing games to practice math facts can transform a tedious task into a favorite pastime.
Although teaching our children skills in reading, writing, and arithmetic remains an important responsibility for parents, it is even more vital for us to cultivate wonder, imagination, and a love for the good, true, and beautiful in our children. This is what has shaped men and women of great virtue throughout history. The quest for truth has been the catalyst for discovery in the fields of science and mathematics. And truth, goodness, beauty, wonder, and imagination already exist in our children. All we must do is encourage them! If we truly embrace this idea of play as research for learning more about who God is, then we will begin to recognize how important play is to all of us. As we consider the necessity of our children learning through play, let’s commit to re-learning the art of playing with them. Will you join me in this call to return to that sense of playful wonder, to celebrate the beautiful gift of childhood that God has granted us through our children?