I recently attended a children’s birthday party where black, Indian, coloured, and white children were all playing together without hesitation.
I was intrigued (as always with children) and sat close by watching them play. This made me think about several important things we can learn from the unfettered soul of the child.
Firstly, I noticed that they rarely judged each other based on appearances including race, religion or otherwise, unless they were so influenced by adults.
There was a total open-heartedness so that when they saw another child, something in their eyes lit up and they would gesture with their bodies or words to connect.
In neuropsychology, the need to play and attach to others are viewed as biological instincts.
All creatures are born with the need to connect, to communicate and share with other beings, human or other. This is vitally important for human bonding and developing empathy.
Sadly, many adults often lose this because of their upbringing, or perhaps because they have been hurt by others, or as a result of the influence of the over-culture which tells us to act grown up, as if reaching out to others is something to be frowned upon.
I believe connecting to others matters and makes a difference to ourselves and others. We feel warmed in our hearts by this gesture and so do others, and this sends a positive ripple effect outward into the world. The power of the simplest kind gesture or act that ripples out into the world and changes lives, mine and yours, should never be underestimated.
Secondly, most children are authentically joyful and happy with a simple game and being able to play this with another. According to the latest neuroscience research, play is a biological instinct built into our brains. So what would the purpose of play be? Play serves various functions for the child but also for adults.
With play child express their inner worlds, their emotions, through creative imaginings and related feelings of what was, is and could be. Play and its unavoidable, and often painful, endings also teaches the child about the inevitable limits in life.
Play also has the potential to heal the emotional world of a child or adult.
Adults do not lose this creative and healing capacity, unless they have developed inner defences to ward off self-expression.
Much healing and power exist in our ability to use our imagination and to express deeper feelings. This is what the creative arts, including music, dancing, painting and poetry, are all about.
Adults often stop using their imagination or being expressive in a playful way as they have been made to believe that they must grow up and “behave”, or fear being laughed at for being imaginative or even criticise themselves when their imaginations bring up interesting, eccentric or creative ideas. We may be told by others our idea is silly or impossible or the most common refrain of the critics (inside and outside our heads) being “you not clever enough, known enough, rich enough, educated enough, etc, to be able to do”
Sadly, we believe the critics, and sadly, many a good project is left to wither and die because of this.
Thirdly, by starting with a quirky thought or expression of a new idea or game, many of the children would all follow the leader.
Running and shouting excitedly and adding their own imaginative thought to the idea of the one who started the ball rolling. They would then all join in with this new game, adding more creative ideas as they go along until it was a full-blown and amazing story of cowboys and crooks or Star Wars or whatever they came up with. They get fully into it as if it is real, feeling the full gamut of emotions and actions that goes with each character or scenario.
This made me think of the power of influence. How easily children (as well as adults) are influenced by others. I wondered about the importance of those around them, the grown-ups, ensuring that they are influenced in a positive way.
The child’s mind is growing developmentally, and up until a certain age they are not yet able to separate fantasy from reality. We, as protective and caring adults, have to ensure that we minimise the negative and destructive materials or influences such as those which can be found in certain media, including movies and games, to as little negativity and destructivity as possible.
A child who is continually exposed to aggression and violence whether in real life or on a screen, will internalise these and feel encouraged to behave accordingly.
A child who experiences and sees mainly creative, non-violent, and educative material, will internalise this too and incorporate this into his inner psychological world.
When I allow myself to open up to the joy of playful imaginings when surrounded by children, my heart opens up and fills with joy too. They can tell the most imaginative stories and their pleasure in doing this is contagious.
I join them in their stories and get carried away with them, allowing them to teach me how to open my mind, be free and silly and play with ideas.
We need to appreciate and support our children for being able to do this and often they are generous and open to sharing with an adult who takes an interest in them.
As an aside, although I refrain from gadget games, I sometimes join in on this too for a little while, to be able to see into another aspect of their world and take an interest in what the child is interested in.
However, this would not be for long as I am a firm believer in the importance of limited gadget time as, overindulging in this, children start to lose their own ability for imagining things and stories because the gadget does it all for them, often detrimentally.
Without opening our hearts to different expressions, colours and variances of being human, as well as using the power of imagination, our world gets smaller, limited and inflexible.
I am forever grateful to children for keeping these wonderful and instinctive abilities alive.
Carin-Lee Masters is a clinical psychologist. She will try to answer as many queries as possible through this column or refer you to organisations that can assist.
You can write to her at
firstname.lastname@example.org or send a WhatsApp message or SMS to 082 264 7774.