Monday, October 07, 2013

When We Finally Accept The Truth About Play

Here is some sobering information: there has been a steady, continuous increase in anxiety and depression in young people in America since the 1950's such that the rates of what we would now diagnose as generalized depression disorder and major depression are five to eight times higher today. The suicide rate for children under 15 has quadrupled. During a similar timeframe, researchers have recorded a decline in children's ability to empathize and a rise in narcissism.

Let that sink in for a second. This is not the result of us simply identifying previously overlooked mental illness: the same clinical questionnaires have been used, virtually unchanged, for the past half century, giving us the ability to genuinely measure these trends over time. According to Boston College psychologist and research professor Peter Gray, it is not a coincidence that we have also seen during that same timeframe a steady, continuous decrease in the opportunity for children to enjoy the freedom of play.

Before you respond with the doubter's easy cliche, "Correlation does not equal causation," please take a moment to read Gray's recent piece on Aeon, which is a kind of summary of his book Free To Learn (2013), a well-documented investigation of the centrality of play in human learning, and in which he convincingly argues that this rise in mental disorders in our children is a direct result of a dearth of unstructured play, or as Gray puts it "the decline in children's freedom." It's a great piece exploring the benefits of free play and the dangers of a lack of it.

Even today, the world of American children is becoming increasingly curtailed and restricted, with longer school days, and more homework, testing, and standardization. Even when not engaged in school, we are shuttling them off to other adult directed activities like sports teams, swimming lessons, and dance classes, leaving precious little time for the kind of free play that is the foundation of a real education, and a healthy psyche.

During the Victorian Era, the leading theory on the purpose of play was that it emerged merely as a result of excess energy, but by the turn of the century, researchers lead by the German philosopher and naturalist Karl Goos, began to study play, first in animals, then in humans, concluding that play is, in fact, "practice" for the skills most necessary for survival: in other words, real education comes through play. As a teacher at a school with a play-based curriculum, I see this every day, children, through their play, practicing such vital skills as negotiation, building relationships, and working together toward common goals, practicing the skills they will need to live productive, satisfying, creative lives. In contrast, our nation's schools, lead from the top by our president and his secretary of education, are implementing longer school days, shorter vacations, and more homework, the very things that compromise mental health.

Gray often writes about democratic free schools, holding them up as a model we should seek to emulate, but acknowledges that it's not going to happen in the short-run. The idea that play is the opposite of learning is just too well embedded in our collective psyche.

I don't expect to convince most people, any time soon, that we should abolish schools as we know them today and replace them with centres for self-directed play and exploration. But I do think there is a chance of convincing most people that play outside of school is important. We have already taken too much of that away; we must not take away any more.

I know that many of you who read my posts are homeschoolers and un-schoolers, parents who have seen the truth about self-directed play. I hear you, support you, and understand why you've made your choices, but this is simply not a choice for most people, even those who understand the centrality of play in a high-quality childhood. Last week I sat with a mother who cried over the inadequacy of the kindergarten her son attends, how he struggles with the lack of freedom, made worse by the recognition that economic realities put options like homeschooling or private schools out of her family's reach. She's not the first, nor will she be the last parent faced with that reality: most of us don't have the financial or constitutional resources to make an alternative education happen, at least not without the support of a community.

This is why we continue to need schools and why we must, as a society, stay engaged. Last week I wrote about an important school board election coming up in Seattle -- there is an important one coming up in your city as well. And it's important even if you don't have a child in the public schools. But it can't stop at the ballot box. Not everyone is ready for the kinds of schools imagined by Gray, but we can have better schools if we stay engaged, not just with the school but with one another. A case in point is the B.F. Day Elementary School just up the hill from Woodland Park, where many of our alumni are enrolled. Three of our former parents are now on staff there, hired by a principal who shares many of our values. No, we're are not going to turn it into a democratic free school, but we are working together, all of us, parents, teachers, and the administration to make it a better public school, even an excellent one, despite pressures from outside our community. And always in the backs of our minds are the ideals of free play.

I will continue to work for the day when this is common knowledge, when we all know as a matter of course the truth that play is the core of how children learn, that we can trust them to learn what they need to learn, that they must have freedom in order to become their best selves, the mentally and emotionally healthy selves we all need them to be if humanity is to survive and thrive. In the meantime, I will stay engaged. I will not throw up my hands and retreat, leaving the field to those who will have kids spend their childhoods with their noses being worn down against the grindstone of tests, homework, rote memorization, and being expected to sit still and silent. We will never achieve perfection, of course, but I have no doubt that we can prevent things from getting worse, which is at least something. I have as much faith that we can actually make things better. I see it happening right up the hill from where I work every day.

To finish, I invite you to take a look at this short, simple, yet thought-provoking video. Imagine for a moment talking to your child this way. Imagine asking these questions of the children you teach. Imagine a world in which we were all free to live our lives according to our answers.

Imagine this world exists right here and now despite the doubts and objections running through your head. This describes the world of our greatest aspirations and highest human potential. It is not a world free from want, worry, or work: it is, however, the world of freedom. It's the world in which we will live when we finally accept the truth about play.

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Anonymous said...

Last year the preschool she attended and the teacher she had were perfect for her. She was allowed to be her caring, loving, creative self. She lOVED school. Lots of free play time! She always gravitated towards making things and doing crafts.

She started Kindergarten this year and I have cried many times. I am loosing my loving, caring, creative child. She is changing. I think it's a mixture of things, bad fit with the teacher, too much structure, and other kids.

I really do wish that I was able to homeschool her.

Jill said...

Wow, I've just read your last 3 posts (from Louis CK up), and I'm just loving each of them! Thank you for writing what you do. It's reassuring to know that there are people out there practicing what I preach. A few years ago I was in the classroom, putting the 8 year old noses to the grindstone, and knowing that what I was doing was wrong. I tried my best to follow my teacher rules but still inspire, give time for creation, allow play, give choices, but I just didn't have the courage, experience, and certainty to buck the system. I'm home with my three kids now, but going back to the classroom at some point down the line. There's no way I could go back and do what I did before. I refuse to teach that way. I don't want traditional school for my own children, so why would I want it for the children I teach? Hopefully when that days comes I will be in a school that agrees with me, or find a way to balance the needs of children with the demands of the system. Maybe I'll just start my own school. :)

Thank you for inspiring me.

francifularts said...

Thanks again for another beautiful post!
One reason that play is successful in your preschool is that there is a low student to adult ratio. I am finding it much more challenging to support play in the environment I'm teaching in because there are so few adults. About a quarter of my students have very poor social skills, and need so much help in order to be successful playing collaboratively. When they play with others they forget to use their words and they tend to grab, push, call names, and melt down. And these are children that are almost 6. These are not 2 and 3 year olds. I am trying to be a positive role model and model kind and gentle play behaviors. I am trying to help children to see how someone's face looks when he/she has been hit or had a toy grabbed for instance. I am hoping the children will develop more empathy. None of us is perfect and we make mistakes. I'm not expecting the children to be perfect, but I do know that an extra adult or two would be very helpful in helping to support positive interactions among the children.
In the current economic climate schools are operating on shoestring budgets. Many schools are fortunate to have community members and parents that volunteer. Sadly however, a basic education is basic. There are few frills. Paid personnel are limited.
My version of a truly wonderful school system is one that has a low student to adult ratio, and that supports students' individual learning interests. Moreover the schools would be loaded with frills such as arts specialists, field trips, and science labs.
I always remember a sweatshirt my husband gave me in the 80's that stated, "It will be a great day when the military has to have a bake sale to buy a bomber and schools have all the money they need."
In the mean time....we dream and work towards that better educational future which includes more play!

Judi Pack said...

Thanks Tom for pointing out that most families cannot homeschool or unschool. We need to keep working for good schooling. It can be done (I know first hand). School can be a place of joy and learning but we have to decide first what we want for our children.

Anonymous said...

As Teacher Tom quoted above "play is practice" It sounds like what these children need at your school is more time to practice social skills. they won't ever learn to interact without time for practicing.

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