A recent study on the cognitive abilities and development of 16-months-old children has me wondering about the role of play in developing—and perhaps just as importantly, in being—disciples of Christ.
The study was an examination on how children learned the names of various non-solid foods like jelly and syrup, pudding and porridge, even when served to them in different shapes and colors. The ultimate takeaway was that children who “interacted vigorously with the original samples,” in other words, played with their food, learned more readily to later identify such foods.
Why was this study done? To see how it is that we learn. Apparently psychologist knew already that children are able to learn the names of solid objects more easily. Say a ball for instance or a cup, because of the fixed physical characteristics of it, the child more quickly is able to incorporate its name into her or his vocabulary. Non-solid items generally take longer for the child to learn the names of. Why? It is understood that through the senses the child is able to touch and feel the objects, even taste, exploring them. Non-solids are not as readily available to children to learn about except during mealtime. Mealtimes then can become opportunities not only of nourishment, but also of profound learning and development. And it was observed that especially those children who were deemed “messy” at mealtimes, who played with their food, learned best.
From the New York Times article:
“So the messy eater experiment is really about the developing brain, and the cues and contexts that small children need to create lexical categories — everything covered by a particular word — a challenge especially when the category is not defined by a shape. The children who squidged around in the cream of wheat, tasted it, smeared it, did various unmentionable things with it — they were the children who understood what cream of wheat was. They could identify it even if it came in a different shape and was doctored with green food coloring. The messy eater experiment is also about play, and the way that children explore their worlds and learn as they go. Toddlers play with their food because toddlers play with their worlds. And by playing and exploring, they accumulate all kinds of data, which helps them put together a picture and a vocabulary for the world around them.”
Following Christmas and throughout this season after the Epiphany I’ve been absorbed with the thought of Jesus learning, growing, and developing into who he was. As I wrote here about a month ago: “I really have been wondering about the way of learning and the development of the Christ child as he grew, especially about language.” And not merely in that the Word becomes flesh and grows in humanity way (as if that isn’t enough!), but also how Jesus grows to become the messiah, how he learns and understands his calling/ministry/mission. So at a basic level there is how the child Jesus physically and biologically grows up and develops language and basic skills. I imagine the young child—in Bethlehem, in Egypt, in Nazareth—playing with his pita bread, smearing around the hummus. But more complexly, I wonder how he grew and developed to understand who he was.
And correlatively us too. The prologue of John has been ever present, especially “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” If we are born again, if we are to become like children, if we are disciples—students and followers and learners of Jesus—it follows that there are ways that our development as such happens. And not trying to force it here, but how does play—something that is so basic, so common, and so important in child development—factor into our spiritual development? If playing with our food as toddlers facilitates cognitive abilities and language acquisition, can play also—or even, need it—function in our becoming better disciples?
And if so, again not trying to force it, but if play hasn’t “played” a role in one’s development, is the church worse off because of it? Are there many of us who have stunted development because of this?
The abstract of the above described study states: “We discuss what implications this context-dependency has for understanding the development of an ontological distinction between solids and nonsolids. Together, these results demonstrate a developmental cascade between context, exploration, and word learning.” Or in another way, as the Times article above says, “Toddlers play with their food because toddlers play with their worlds. And by playing and exploring, they accumulate all kinds of data, which helps them put together a picture and a vocabulary for the world around them.”
Certainly, there comes a time when we must put away childish behaviors. We grow up. Obviously. (Although I do have serious concerns about interrupted and stunted development that we may encounter, foster, and promote in the church.) But still, do we need to learn to play better so as to learn better?
This is a serious inquiry. I really am wondering. And perhaps next time we can wonder about the role of imagination in play and faith development.