Not all playing fits into this category; a lot of it is just filler and so is quickly forgotten. Other kinds of fun serve valuable purposes but do not qualify as "real playing" (For example, I think educational and athletic activities are great and have their place, but they do not fully capitalize on the uniqueness of childhood the way that real playing does).
So what IS real playing? I've been mulling over that question for a long time. To a certain extent, it is difficult to define, and you just know it when you see it.
I've been thinking lately though about the conversations my siblings and I have when we get together and noting the memories we return to again and again. As I've thought about it, I think I've been able to distill out certain common characteristics of the playing that made up those memories.
This list is my best stab at identifying real play. Please do leave additional thoughts in the comments section (illustrations, additional characteristics, disagreements, whatever!)
Real Play --
1. Is child directed- an adult might find unobtrusive ways to lend support or occasionally spark a fun idea, but the children have a sense of ownership over the style of play.
2. Makes innovative use of the objects available. Not dependent on expensive toys and props.
3. Is focused- Doesn't flit restlessly from toy to toy or activity to activity.
4. Has longevity- Children will return to the same kind of play over the course of days, weeks or even years. Sometimes there is a feeling of urgency to get back to it.
5. Is sometimes inspired by stories from real life or fiction, but not tied to them. The stories are just the jumping-off points. Real play develops the life of the mind and creates an inner world.
6. Is complex- Real play develops its own history, rules, and private jokes over time.
7. Almost always has a child- given name. "Let's go play Jibber Jumpers!" etc.
8. Is treated by children with a certain seriousness. At some level they feel there is something more important going on that just having fun. Hence the need for secrecy, passwords, sober explanations to those they take into their confidence, etc.
9. Often involves working toward the completion of a lofty goal- building a little house, making a road, digging a swimming pool, etc.
10. Is marked by an absence of self-consciousness. Children are free to giggle and be silly and carefree in a way that they wouldn't be if they felt they had an audience.
Stay tuned for part 3 of this little series - How to encourage real playing at your house and Part 4 - Things we as parents sometimes do to inadvertently discourage it.