Monday, May 05, 2014

There's No Other Way


































Over the past four days I've travelled across the wide part of the North American continent, from Seattle to Prince Edward Island, where I presented at the Early Childhood Development Association of PEI's Spring Conference, and back. The time I spent at the conference and on the island was wonderful, my hosts friendly and organized, the participants engaged and intelligent, the locality charming, and I can't help but feel that the children of PEI are lucky to be growing up in such a place, but it was an air travel experience from the netherworlds. I started on Thursday with six flights booked: there were two outright flight cancellations along the way, a total of 9 hours of delay, and I wound up flying on only two of the original six flights arriving at home a half a day later than planned. When I wasn't running full speed through concourses, I was just sitting there, waiting.

Fortunately, I'd packed Peter Gray's book Free To Learn, and in the spirit of making lemonade, finally got around to reading it after having had it on my bedside table for months. There is so much to love about this book, not the least of which being that there are more than 30 pages of notes, bibliography, and index at the back, indicating the depth of Mr. Gray's research, but also rendering this otherwise concise manifesto something that won't just sit on the shelf: I'll be able to use it as I try in my way to make the world a better place for children.

I don't know if I'll get around to a full review of the book, but I do highly recommend it. In fact, as the Woodland Park Community Schools make plans to launch a new kindergarten, I am going to urge our entire planning committee to read it.

The thing that's been most on my mind is this:

. . . (P)lay always involves rules of some sort, but all players must freely accept the rules, and if rules are changed, then all players must agree to the changes. That is why play is the most democratic of all activities. In social play (play involving more than one player), one player may emerge for a period as the leader, but only at the will of the others. Every rule a leader proposes must be approved, at least tacitly, by all of the other players. The ultimate freedom in play is the freedom to quit. Because the players want to keep the game going, and because they know that other players will quit and the game will end if they are not happy, play is a powerful vehicle for learning how to please others while also pleasing oneself.

We always speak of play as a freely chosen activity, but before reading this, I'd not given much thought to the flip side: the freedom to walk away. As I've contemplated this concept, while sitting bleary-eyed in airports, and how it guides much of what happens as the children play at Woodland Park, I've also asked myself the question: If children are free to walk away from play, does the majority also have the right to exclude others?

As a teacher in a play-based school, this is usually much more of an issue than children voluntarily quitting, which is, as Gray describes in his many examples, typically handled quite well by the children without adult intervention through their innate ability to compromise. But, I find myself almost always involved when it comes to exclusion. Sometimes the exclusion is justified. For instance, if one child repeatedly hits or injures another as part of the play, or refuses to abide by the democratically agreed upon rules of the game, it's only fair, I think that the others can elect to demand exclusion. On the other hand, when the exclusion is arbitrary, such as being based solely upon gender or the color one's hair, that is the sort of unfairness that a democratic society cannot tolerate. This is the tightrope we walk every day as the unelected executive branch of our little play-based democracies.

The only legitimate way to handle it, of course, is through conversation, but it remains one of the core challenges of democracy as the basic rights of minorities can quite easily be impinged by the rule of majority, even as majority rules (and ideally something approaching consensus) stands at the center of how our democratic societies are organized. Each year, usually quite early in the year, the children bump up against this issue, and legislate some version of the rule "You can't say you can't play," which is our way to protect minority rights, but as I've written before, that's just a starting point because there are, in fact, many times when you can say you can't play.

These are complicated things, hard things, we work on as we learn to build and live in a community, for both adults and children. As Gray points out, we are evolutionarily designed for this, but that doesn't mean it's easy. Indeed, it's the hardest thing of all. The key is dialog, of course, the kind of dialog that many of us don't like: icky, emotional, and devoid of the comfort of blacks and whites, but if we're going to live together, there's no other way. 

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1 comment:

Tanya Campbell said...

You did a wonderful presentation in Prince Edward Island. I was very honoured to be part of it. Thank you, Teacher Tom!

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