Tuesday, October 11, 2016


Many years ago, a girl named Luna introduced me to a type of play of which I was formerly unaware. Almost every day, she and two or three friends would collect big piles of things -- plastic food, stuffed animals, and other indoor loose parts -- then spend most of their time, it seemed, just sitting on their pile. Usually, they chose the area under our loft and most often they simply called it their home, although sometimes it was a castle or a fort.

To my thinking as a fairly new teacher, it wasn't a particularly "productive" type of play. It was sedentary, isolating, and messy. It was perhaps the messiness that bugged me the most because the girls -- and it was mostly girls -- would not leave their nest of stuff until it was time to tidy up. Then they would make themselves scarce, leaving the rest of us with a huge sorting project. I never said or did anything to scuttle their game, even as I often wished it away.

Indeed, even after Luna moved on to kindergarten, this type of play continued. It seemed that there was always at least one four-year-old with this instinct. Sometimes I would join the kids in their nesting play, finding a spot amongst their maddening clutter, trying to better understand what was going on. I never lasted long, however, because we mostly just sat on our stuff, minutely arranged our stuff, quibbled over our stuff, and conspired to get more stuff. In other words, I found it rather dull even if the children were fully engaged.

That's okay, of course, I don't need to understand everything the children do, so I simply parked it in my brain as "nesting play" and left it there.

When we moved to our current location some six years ago, the nesting play didn't move with us. Although the physical layout of the classroom, including the loft and other furniture, remained virtually the same, the children simply stopped doing it. Sure, there were still times when kids would make big piles of random materials, but it never took on the day-after-day regularity that it had in previous eras. And honestly, I've not really thought about it since: good riddance and all that, I suppose.

The reason I'm reminded of Luna and her nesting game this morning is that after a long hiatus it appears to be back. Pretty much since the beginning of the school year, a small group of four-year-old boys has been nesting in the top of our loft, emptying boxes and bags and shelves of stuff into piles, then essentially sitting on it, calling it their home or their hideout, sometimes keeping others out, but mostly arranging, quibbling and conspiring.

I'm a different teacher today than I was back then. I no longer judge any type of play as being superior or more productive, even if I still detect an itch of irritation over it. I've learned that when children are free to pursue their own interests in their own time, they are invariably preparing for what they perceive to be in their future. When they wear costume gowns and play princess, they are, in part at least, working on societal notions of gender and beauty; when they play hero games they are exploring concepts of masculinity, threat and protection; when they build or create or explore or experiment they are seeking to understand the social, physical and scientific ideas that underpin our world. That is the reason play exists as an instinct: it is how our urge to understand naturally expresses itself. It is through our play that we ask and answer their own questions about the world.

Of course, I can never really know what motivates another human, but in thinking about this nesting play, I can't help but make connections to how too many of us live, sitting in our homes, collecting and curating our stuff, arranging, quibbling, and conspiring to get more. I'm not saying that any individual family is more stuff oriented than another, but rather that the idea, like the stereotypes of femininity and masculinity, are a part of our world and each of us, including our children, must come to terms with it. The children, it seems, are seeking to understand this obviously important connection we have with our piles of stuff. Some will grow up to accept it, others will reject it, and most will carve out some sort of middle ground.

In the meantime, the children are nesting in their pile of what we adults see as worthless stuff, asking and answering their own questions, while at the same time holding up a mirror in which we see our own reflection.

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