The nurturing nature of play

Rich, pretend play underlies our ability to understand the symbolic nature of written language. But it’s much more than that too. Pretend play also has the power to comfort, help solve problems and leads to empathy and understanding. This is the theme of Nolubabalo Mbotshwa’s reflection here; a difficult, but ultimately rich memory from her early childhood.

From when I was a year old, my sister and I lived with my granny in the Eastern Cape, while my parents lived and worked in Cape Town Now we were going to Cape Town for the Christmas holidays to visit them. At that time I was four years old and she was seven.  We only got to see uBhuti noKhaya  in December, so even though the bus trip was long,  we were excited because we knew we would soon be together again.

Cape Town was so much fun; after work my dad would take us to the park and to the beach. My parents’ employers had a pool so we swam every day, we ate nice food, went shopping for our Christmas clothes. We were having such a lovely time in Cape Town.

Then January came – and we knew we had to go back to the Eastern Cape.  The last few days were very sad for us … our holiday was coming to an end and we would only see our parents again in December.

Our journey to the bus station was very quiet. I was crying in the back of the car and my sister kept holding my hand and telling me not to cry or else our journey back to the Eastern Cape would be bad.  I tried not to cry but the more I tried to hold my tears back they more they just rolled down my face. My mom gave me her handkerchief – Oh boy did I cry more now,  and louder! My parents said that they would try and come to the Eastern Cape in June to see us, but that still didn’t help me feel better.

We got out the car, my dad went to take our bags and put them in the bus, while I was sitting on my mom’s lap and sobbing. Everybody that walked past asked my mom why I was crying and she told them I didn’t want to go back to the Eastern Cape. They would just say “Shame but she’s going to be ok once she’s on the bus”.  I cried so much my head hurt.

The bus driver started the engine and people started getting on the bus. My mom took me to the door of the bus and I was hanging on to her for dear life.  Now I was screaming. My parents didn’t know what to do and my sister looked at me, trying very hard not to cry.

The bus driver saw me and asked what was wrong.  Mom told him and the bus driver said “How can you send a child away who’s crying like this?”

My mom said “Yes but she goes to school in the Eastern Cape.”

Then the bus driver asked “Aren’t there schools here?”

I looked up as Bhuti who was sitting in the car came and  stood next to my mom and he said  “ She can’t go on crying like this, we will talk to our employers”.

So I got off the bus and my sister went without me. I didn’t have any clothes because my clothes were all in the bus, I didn’t care as long as I was staying in Cape Town.

When we got back, my parents went to their employers and told them about the drama I had caused at the bus station.  The next morning my mom, her employer and myself went shopping for clothes, shoes and a new school bag. And the day after that, I started nursery school at a school opposite where we lived.  I was the only black child in my small class and I couldn’t understand a word of English. My teacher and the children were very kind to me and the children would call me to play with them but I just cried and cried.  I was so unhappy, this was all too overwhelming for me, I wanted to be in Cape Town but I wanted to be with my mom, not go to school with people who were different from me and didn’t speak my language.  I used to cry so much that my teacher would take me home to my mom.

When I was at home, I would take my doll and put her on my back and play alone, I imagined I was playing with my sister and cousins in the Eastern Cape – and  there were no tears.

My teacher was very worried about me and she asked my mom what is it that I really like playing or doing.  My mom told her l love playing dolls and pretending to cook.

The next day when I arrived at nursery, there were four  dolls and towels and  I went straight to the dolls and put one on my back.  I was so happy, I had the doll on my back the whole morning.  Then some other children wanted to also put the dolls on their backs so I helped them. This was some sort of positive interaction between me and my classmates. From then on, I felt like I was part of the class, and wanted to go to school every day.  There were no more tears,  my friends and I would put our babies on our backs and cook some food.  Other classes then also brought dolls and one teacher asked the nannies who looked after the children at home to come  and help the children put their babies on their backs.

I loved my teacher so much; she wanted me to feel part of the class. I loved that she went to my mom to ask her what more she could  do to make me feel part of the class, not like an outsider, because that was how I had felt.

Nolubabalo Mbotshwa
Storyplay mentor, Nolubabalo Mbotshwa, shares a rich and difficult memory from her early childhood, which shows the power of pretend play to comfort, help solve problems and lead to empathy and understanding.


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