Should a child be encouraged to play? Did you know there are narrations about play in Islam? My understanding of play has evolved drastically since becoming a mom. I once saw it as a trivial pastime, but now I value it as the most crucial element of early child development. I’ll share what influenced my shift and the lessons I learned along the way.
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When I began to research the Islamic perspective on play, it was terrific to see that it was encouraged the same way Western experts talk about it now. But I’ve realized there is little discussion on this within our communities. It seems that greater emphasis is placed on a race to intellectual development the moment a child is born.
This post will discuss the importance of play in Islam during a child’s formative years, the western perspective on play, and a few philosophies aligned with Islamic values. I will also share some questions that helped me during my journey in the hopes that they will help you navigate your own as you raise your children in the west.
This post is all about play in Islam and western philosophies.
Play in Islam:
Islam promotes the concept of play in a child’s formative years. We find narrations from Prophet Muhammad (P.B.U.H) indicating that children should focus on play for the first seven years of their lives (Al Kafi, H10429, Ch. 33, h.1). This hadith tells us on a spiritual level that there is more to playing than we may think. Through play, children begin to develop every aspect of themselves.
The Prophet (P.B.U.H) is known to say, “One who has a child with him has to treat him like a child” (Behar al-Anwar, Vol. 35, P.350). When I first read this, I remembered when my mom played “school” with me, and my father and I played outdoors in -40C Canadian weather, building igloos, snowmen, and snow chairs. My best memories and experiences occurred when my elders engaged in play with me at a level that made sense to me at that point in time.
Furthermore, Ali ibn Abu-Talib (a.s.) said, “One who has a child has to behave in a childlike manner in training his child” (Wasa’il ash-Shian, Vol.5, P.285). When we participate in play, we encourage our children to grow at their pace with confidence. We validate their actions, which promotes a positive growth mindset and the ability to achieve tremendous success through effort and learning.
According to narrations, the Prophet (P.B.U.H) said “the child’s playfulness in his childhood causes his intellect to strengthen in his adult age” (Kanz al-Ummal, Vol.11, P.91). We see various western literature that now tells us the importance of play-based learning and its lasting effects.
Yet another hadith from Jafar ibn Muhammad (a.s.) says “leave the child alone to play for seven years, then he is to be disciplined for seven years, and then keep him close to you for seven years” (Kitab Man la Yahdarhu al-Faqih, Vol. 3, P.493). Again, the first seven years are emphasized as the years of play.
Narrations on the concept of play in Islam are not limited to the ones I’ve mentioned. Several narrations from all sects describe how the Prophet (P.B.U.H) and his family interact with children in play-like manners.
The Western Perspective on Play:
Psychologists, researchers, and early child development specialists agree that play is essential to support holistic child development in their formative years. Through play, children engage the executive function in their brains and develop social, literacy, motivational, and problem-solving skills without it all feeling like a chore. As a mom, I’ve seen how play supports my children to develop all aspects of themselves – from fine motor skills to social skills.
Knowing the importance of play in Islam, and the western perspective, you may wonder how you could incorporate the Islamic way through western means. You’d be surprised to learn that play isn’t always about the latest and greatest toys on the market, and play isn’t just a trivial pastime. There can be a purpose to play, and oftentimes there is. Philosophies exist and are artfully designed to facilitate play-based learning during a child’s critical years from 0 – 7.
Keep reading to learn about the most prominent and successful philosophies in the west, also known as ‘Progressive Education’, that lay focus on play-based learning and are similar to our Islamic teachings.
Progressive Educational Philosophies:
Today, many educational philosophies have emphasized the importance of play for younger children. Some of the perspectives outside of traditional education include Montessori, Waldorf, and the Reggio Emilia method. These differ from formal education because they typically focus on the child leading their learning. The children understand their full potential instead of the traditional mainstream approach where the teacher holds the power of knowledge.
Let’s briefly discuss what you can expect from each of these learning philosophies regarding the concept of play.
The Montessori model, designed by physician Maria Montessori, spread through Europe and India in the 1900s. It wasn’t until after the 1950s that the United States supported this approach. This methodology focuses on the child constructing their own learning experience. In other words, the child guides the learning process. The teacher is less an instructor than a guide that facilitates a child-centered environment.
The Montessori Approach
Because the child guides the learning process, the child learns basic skills from play. For example, Montessori uses movement and cognition as a means to learn. A famous quote from Maria Montessori herself states, “What the hand does, the mind remembers.” Learning to walk requires movement of the legs, reading a book involves the movement of the hand to turn pages, etc.
Another Montessori approach is the concept of choice. When we provide children with a choice, they feel empowered and are more likely to willfully and joyfully execute the task/activity they choose. They are more likely to be interested in what they’re doing. When we do this, we encourage self-motivation within a child.
Montessori also focuses on learning from and with peers. This may seem unusual compared to a traditional education setting because Montessori classrooms use a grouping strategy whereby children from ages 3 to 6 are usually in one classroom together. Each learns from the other. In this setting, you may find that the younger children mimic the elders, and the elders display natural leadership and sometimes even vice versa.
Order within the environment is an essential factor with Montessori. An easy example of this would be the cleaning-up process. Each toy has a specific place on the shelf, books have a home on a book rack, dirty laundry belongs in the laundry basket, and clean dishes in the cupboards. Each object has a compartment, and this concept teaches the child to categorize information within the brain. Creating order reduces a child’s tendency to be scatterbrained and may promote greater focus.
The Teacher’s Role
The Montessori curriculum is individualized. You will not see a Montessori teacher teaching the same lesson to all students; instead, teachers cater to each child’s needs, interests, and learning styles within the classroom.
For Montessori to achieve the best results for a child, the learning must be meaningful. Not just through pictures or textbooks, but through nature exploration, museums, interaction, and movement, so long as it works for the child.
The Waldorf philosophy was introduced in 1919 by philosopher Rudolf Steiner in Stuttgart, Germany. This philosophy focuses on a child’s freedom and holistic development through play and fantasy, especially during the first seven years. Art is foundational to the Waldorf experience. You will see art in all forms, from storytelling to pretend play to mathematics.
The Waldorf Approach
The belief remains that humans will develop naturally if they have the opportunity to explore their natural environment. Steiner created this model because of the issues concerning technology’s ability to ‘dehumanize’ culture. In a post-industrial world, he believed there was a benefit in allowing young children to develop their human potential as the world continued to be mechanized.
Similar to Islamic narrations, Waldorf education divides its learning approach into increments of seven years. The first seven years focus on play and fantasy and are known as the years of “goodness.” They are followed by seven years focusing on academic learning, the years of “beauty.” The final seven years focus on understanding the concept of “truth and justice.” These segments consider the development of a human from birth to adulthood and foster learning based on the development of the brain.
During the years from 0 – 7, children learn through movement, arts and crafts, storytelling, and music to fit all learning styles. If you send your child to a Waldorf school during this age, the environment is set up to replicate a home, with a goal to focus on imagination and emotional life. In fact, Waldorf schools do not introduce reading and math until the first grade; however, through play-based activities, children learn the foundation for reading and math.
A common phrase associated with the Waldorf philosophy is “head-heart-hand” (Easton, 1997). Head – to think clearly and independently; heart – the capacity to feel emotionally connected to your work and the world; and hands – the willingness to take action and achieve personal goals. In essence, you’re not just using your head, but your heart and soul are part of the learning process as well.
The Teacher’s Role
The teacher is an artistic director rather than an instructor or a guide. The curriculum and classroom environment is created around the children who are actually in the classroom. The teacher strives to become an expert on each child and will ensure lessons are artistically conveyed to fit various learning styles.
The Reggio Emilia philosophy was developed after World War II by psychologist Loris Malaguzzi in Reggio Emilia, Italy. After the war, families had minimal opportunities to build. The philosophy states that “children construct their knowledge and values from interactions with, and actions on, the physical and social world” (Firlik 1996, p. 217).
The Reggio Emilia Approach
The three focuses of the Reggio Emilia philosophy emphasize the child’s rights, the significance of the teacher, and partnerships. It is essential to hold each child’s rights and values as they navigate the learning process.
Unlike the Montessori and Waldorf approaches, Reggio Emilia’s philosophy focuses primarily on young children aged 1 – 6. The children in these environments come into the classroom as competent, active beings who are full of potential. Children use their senses and investigate, explore, and process information through art, movement, words, music, construction, etc. Regio Emilia’s philosophy typically uses these in the form of project-based learning. When a child loses interest in the project, the project ends, and a new project begins.
The Teacher’s Role
The teacher in the Reggio Emilia philosophy is a professional researcher consistently learning, doing, and reflecting. The teacher’s role is to understand each child’s curiosities, theories, and wonders through note-taking, observing, discussions, and dialogues. They can often predict what children may want to focus on by following their natural interests. The teacher may change the environment by moving objects, placing a new toy or activity, and observing how the children interact with the altered environment as the new day begins.
This approach utilizes an open-ended curriculum, which means the child dictates what they want to learn day by day rather than an established curriculum. The term ‘progettazione’ replaces the word ‘curriculum’ and means “technique of thinking.” Teachers tend to stay with the children for three years at a time and often work in pairs.
Although the Montessori, Waldorf, and Reggio Emilia philosophies carry many overlaps through a focus on play in a child’s formative years, they differ in how they approach their perspectives.
You may be curious as to why I elected not to discuss traditional or mainstream education. It is because these forms of education use direct instruction and teacher authority even in the younger years. The student learns through listening and observation, placing less focus on the concept of play-based learning in the first seven years of a child. I found this approach to be less aligned with our Islamic teachings, but that doesn’t mean there is no place for this type of education in later years.
Montessori, Waldorf, and Reggio Emilia’s philosophies remove the idea of teacher superiority and elevate the child’s status. The child exhibits free will to explore and learn naturally through different means, all with enjoyment, choice, and respect, just like Islam has taught us.
There are other learning philosophies, but these three approaches are most reputable and available in the west. As Muslim parents, we do our best to align our Islamic beliefs as we navigate our lives in the west, and it’s not always an easy journey.
Each of these progressive educational philosophies is capable of being practiced in the home environment and/or designated schools. As you raise your little ones and begin defining what play means for you, I’d like to share some questions that helped me when I started on this topic. I hope they help you decide which of these approaches (or a combination) works for you and your children between the ages of 0 – 7.
Questions to Consider:
- With what I currently know, how would I define play? What value do I give it? What are my assumptions about it?
- How did I experience ‘playing’ as a child, and did that approach support me fully?
- How do I facilitate play with my child?
- What environments does my child thrive in best? (i.e., guided or unguided play, goals, rewards, independently or with others, etc.)
- Does my child learn better through fantasy, construction, crafts, movement, or a combination of these?
- What steps can I take to ensure my child thrives according to their learning style?
- What role do I want to hold as a parent during playtime?
Remember, no single system is perfect, but like all aspects of parenting, we draw from the wealth of knowledge available to see what works for our unique families. This also means you leave out what doesn’t work. In the end, it’s about the efforts you make to align your Islamic ways with western norms.
May you be rewarded for all your efforts!
This post is all about play in Islam and western philosophies.
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