During Early Childhood, Playing IS Learning

During Early Childhood, Playing IS Learning

Today my family and I witnessed something truly crushing during my four-year-old’s swim class. She was having a great time, as usual; she loves the water, as many children do. Her dad does the class alongside her, and today she asked him to actually let go while she was floating—a big step! Though she remains uncomfortable “going under,” as many people do, we refuse to push her, allowing her to learn at her own pace and maintain her level of interest and comfort with the water itself.

On the other hand, there was a mother present who seemed to have the opposite idea for her daughter. This little girl was younger than mine, and was fretful the entire lesson while her mother put her down and bullied her, saying things like, “Do you want to be a baby forever? You’ll still be out of the water in ten years and everyone will laugh at you!” She got to where she was being so cruel—especially when we overheard her yelling at her daughter, now crying, in the family changing room—that I actually started to cry.

One of the things she told her daughter (along with comments involving never wanting to have anything to do with her again) was that she paid for these classes so she could learn, not so she could play. This, to me, was a contradictive statement in its entirety. The best way children learn—in fact, in many cases, they only way they learn—is through play. All of the academic studies I’ve read, developmental professionals who’ve worked with my child during her delays, and most of the teachers I know confirm this. Shouldn’t that be obvious when we’ve all witnessed how our kids have learned to walk and talk?

The woman actually approached us and asked us how we got our daughter to “do what the teacher says.” We just nervously glanced at one another—she did appear violent in her posture, after all—and said something about how we just let her play.

She scoffed and said, “Well, she’ll work with her dad and her grandma. Even when the teacher works with her she does better, but she doesn’t work with me!” My husband mentioned later that if she hadn’t been such a bully, maybe the poor girl would’ve “worked” with her. But why not let her play and learn instead of putting so much pressure on her?

Now, I realize that all of us parents have our good days and bad days. I know I’ve said things to my daughter that I’ve regretted. This wasn’t the first time this mother acted in such a way, though it was the worst we’ve seen so far. Every class period, you’d think she was an Olympic swim coach coming down hard on her least favorite student. Maybe it’s because she thinks she should be getting more out of the classes—she does mention “paying for this” a lot. Maybe she’s comparing her child to mine and the other children and is trying to “discipline” her for some misplaced comparative reason. Whatever is happening, I hope that it’s isolated, and I hope that that little girl encounters mostly loving sentiments on a regular basis.

I wish I’d said something more. I just didn’t know what to say. I offered the little girl a smile—she smiled back, though she was still crying a little at that point—and mentally wished her luck. I wonder if it’s appropriate to actually say anything when a parent is behaving in such a way, and what could possibly be said that wouldn’t make the situation worse?