Can playing with children be an act of worship?
by Abu Shama
Let them play and join in
Whenever we play with children, we have an opportunity to enter into their world and see the world through their eyes, (where everything is new, exciting and fascinating). Although this looks like play to us adults, it is actually work for them. It has been said by many psychologists and educationalists:
“Play is the work of childhood.” [Jean Piaget]
“Play is the work of the child.” [Maria Montessori]
“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning.” [Fred Rogers]
If anyone knew anything about raising children, it would be Imam Ali (may Allah be pleased with him) – raised since his childhood in the household of the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him). Imam Ali is also the father of Hasan (may Allah be pleased with him) and Husain (may Allah be pleased with him), the beloved grandchildren of the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him). He had unprecedented access to seeing prophetic parenting in action. And his take on raising children is to let them play and play with them. Imam Ali ( may Allah be pleased with him) said:
“Play with them for the first seven years, teach them for the next seven years and then advise them for the next seven years.”
These first seven years are when we roll up our sleeves, get down on our knees and play with them. And here, play means play – unstructured and fun. Play here also means playing at their level, we are not trying to teach them or scare them or test them or play mind games. It’s just play – an act of kindness and worship. This is the time when they are processing the world and creating their worldview through play. When we play with them, we are being integrated into their worldview. When we make time to play with them, we are making a significant investment in their future and building a strong connection with them. Through their play, we get the opportunity to converse with them, connect with them and slowly connect their sense of wonder and amazement and start to build a strong connection to Allah (more on this later).
Let them run around
Since we mention Imam Ali (may Allah be pleased with him), let us continue with his family. I am going to mention two ahadith and perhaps take a different approach in analysing them.
Ya’la ibn Murra (may Allah be pleased with him) said,
“We went out with the Prophet (peace be upon him), and we were invited to eat. Husain was playing in the road and the Prophet (peace be upon him) raced the people and then spread out his arms.
The boy began to run this way and that and the Prophet made him laugh until he caught hold of him. He put one of his hands under his chin and the other on his head and then embraced him. Then the Prophet (peace be upon him) said,
‘Husain is from me and I am from Husain. Allah loves anyone who loves al-Hasan and al-Husain. They are two of my distinguished descendants.’” [Adab al-Mufrad]
And in another incident, Abu Hurairah (may Allah be pleased with him) narrated:
“I was with the Prophet of Allah (peace be upon him) in one of the markets of Madina. He left (the market) and so did I. Then he asked thrice, ‘Where is the small (child)?’ Then he said, ‘Call Hasan bin Ali.’ So Hasan bin Ali got up and started walking with a necklace (of beads) around his neck. The Prophet (peace be upon him) stretched his hand out like this, and Hasan did the same.
The Prophet (peace be upon him) embraced him and said, ‘O Allah! I love him, so please love him and love those who love him.’
Since Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) said that, nothing has been dearer to me than Hasan.” [Bukhari]
From these ahadith, we can learn a great many lessons. Firstly, the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) played with Husain (may Allah be pleased with him) , he and his Companions chased Husain (may Allah be pleased with him) through the street. Secondly, we see the mutual love and connection, Hasan (may Allah be pleased with him) ran towards the Prophet (peace be upon him) with his arms outstretched and the Prophet (peace be upon him) ran toward Husain (may Allah be pleased with him) with his arms outstretched. Thirdly, the physical intimacy of hugs and kisses. Fourthly, expressing love. Fifthly, boosting the self-worth of Hasan and Husain (may Allah be pleased with them) by showing how dear and cherished they are to the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him). Sixthly, creating a sense of identity and belonging. Children want to belong – they want to feel part of a family because survival and wellbeing depends on it. If we only cultivated this, we would not lose so many children to peer culture.
In another hadith, it was narrated by Abdullah bin Shaddad that his father said:
“The Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) came out to us for one of the night-time prayers, and he was carrying Hasan (or Husain). The Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) came forward and put him down, then he said the takbir and started to pray. He prostrated during his prayer and made the prostration lengthy. My father said: ‘I raised my head and saw the child on the back of the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) while he was prostrating so I went back to my prostration. When the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) finished praying, the people said: ‘O Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him), you prostrated during the prayer for so long that we thought that something had happened or that you were receiving a revelation.’ He said: ‘No such thing happened. But my son was riding on my back and I did not like to disturb him until he had enough.’’” [Sunan an-Nasa’i]
From this hadith, we can also learn a great many lessons, but we shall keep them related to raising children.
Firstly, the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) demonstrated his love for Hasan (may Allah be pleased with him), he carried him to the masjid. Secondly, he showed that children too belonged in the masjid. Thirdly, he took him to the front (and not left him at the side or back) of the masjid. Fourthly, he included him in the jama’ah. Fifthly, he let him be – to play, pray and observe. Sixthly, he even delayed completing his prayer because of Hasan (may Allah be pleased with him). When asked as to why he prolonged his prostration, the Messenger of Allah’s (peace be upon him). response was:
‘My son (grandson) was riding on my back and I did not like to disturb him until he had enough.’
Significance of the hadith
But wait a minute, isn’t Salah the most important and virtuous of all the acts of worship? Isn’t khushu the act of standing before Allah with full concentration and not be distracted by one’s surrounding? And isn’t being in prostration the closest to Allah? Didn’t the Prophet (peace be upon him) say:
“The servant is closest to his Lord during prostration, so increase your supplications therein.” [Muslim]
Yes to all of them and yet the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) prolonged his prayer. The manifestation of being close to Allah is to show love and mercy to creation. That closeness with Allah leads to closeness, warmth, mercy and compassion for people, especially children.
The Prophet (peace be upon him) at that moment was informing us through allusion that playing with children is also part of worship (in the general sense), that there is no piety and worship that places family at second best, we should include them to worship alongside us.
What message does it send to the adults and parents?
It signifies, if the best of the worshippers in his devotion to Allah could include his grandson with his devotion, so can we.
When we look at this from a child’s perspective, what does it signify to Hasan (may Allah be pleased with him)?
It signifies that instead of, ‘I am busy in fulfilling my obligation to Allah’ or ‘I am busy leading the Muslim ummah’ it says, ‘I have time for you’ and ‘if you want to play horse-back riding, I will wait until you have had enough.’
He honoured Hasan (may Allah be pleased with him) , included him, and he made him feel special, valued and validated. What message does it send to the child? What does that do to a child in terms of self-worth and building a child’s character? What does that do to a child in terms of secure attachment?
The science of play
Let’s examine these ahadith from what we know of neurophysiology. From our current understanding of neuroscience, we can see a flood of neurochemicals [also known as neurotransmitters] being released in children when fathers interact and engage in play with their children (especially where there is physical touch involved). We will look at the big four neurotransmitters.
First, we have oxytocin, which acts like a social glue which makes a child feel confident in a social situation and facilitates new bonds to form and strengthen existing relationships. In both ahadith, this would be released through touch and physical proximity.
Second is dopamine. Dopamine is a reward neurochemical which lets us experience pleasure, happiness and feel great. Again, in the hadith, this would be released through the act of play and having fun.
Third is beta-endorphin. Beta-endorphin is a natural painkiller that prepares the child to deal with the rough and tumbles of life. And this would be released through running around, being chased and physical contact. Again we see that in both ahadith.
Lastly, serotonin. Serotonin helps regulate mood and makes us feel more emotionally secure, happy, calm and content. There are many ways of raising this, through food, sunlight, exercise, doing fun activities and having a positive outlook.
Concerning playing with children, children learn emotional regulation from their parents, meaning the neurophysiology of the parent affects the child, so if the parents are happy, content, and calm… the child will feel similar. So when we play with children through an activity they like – that will boost their serotonin level. If we chase them around, wrestle with them, and play rough and tumble – that too will increase their serotonin level. And if we compliment, praise or raise their social status so they feel more self-worth and value – that also raises their serotonin level. It makes them feel happy and content.
In the first hadith, we saw the Companions running after Husain (may Allah be pleased with him) and he was running with elation – that raised his serotonin level. Then he was shown love by the Prophet of Allah (peace be upon him), the one most loved by his people – that raised his serotonin level. Hasan and Husain (may Allah be pleased with them) were singled out to be loved and cherished by he whose words carry the greatest weight – that would raise their serotonin level. And the Prophet of Allah (peace be upon him) embraced them and smiled upon them – and he was always seen to be smiling and cheerful – that would raise their serotonin level. And in the hadith concerning the prayer, Hasan’s (may Allah be pleased with him) status and value were raised by the Prophet (peace be upon him) by prolonging his sujud such that the entire congregation waited as Hasan (may Allah be pleased with him) played horseback on the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him). And this too would raise his serotonin level and let him experience happiness and contentment.
This neurochemical rush of oxytocin, dopamine, beta-endorphins and serotonin in our body is great for bonding, attachment and getting to know one another and feeling happy. And here is the most amazing part, when the flood of positive chemicals is taking place in the child, we are also getting a hit of them (within ourselves) until there is a bio-behavioural synchrony that is established between the parent and the child. This is when parent and child are attuned and on the same wavelength. There is synchrony in physiology, behaviour and emotion and even spiritual states. Imagine what it was doing to Hasan (may Allah be pleased with him) and Husain (may Allah be pleased with him) having synchrony with the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him), the best of creation.
So when you spend time with your children and enter into their world, you have the opportunity to learn with them and help them foster a loving relationship with you first and thereafter with Allah. Remember, to a child, love is spelt as ‘T-I-M-E’, when we spend time with them playing, they experience it as love. So play with them, and enjoy their company, this is the time to bring happiness to their hearts and they will do the same to you now and in the future. And the connection and bonds that are developed in the formative years tend to mature and grow well into adulthood. If they formed a strong attachment and love with us in the formative years, they will form a strong bond of love with Allah.
Remember, the relationship the child has with their parent will inform the relationship the child will have with Allah. It’s a huge responsibility and a tremendous privilege. And it starts with us spending more time. So let’s roll up our sleeves and get down on our knees and play.
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