Wednesday, February 21, 2018

"Play With A Purpose"

A few years back, I was watching a boy named Henry carry a yellow traffic pylon across the playground. He carefully placed it on the ground, not on it's base, but on it's side, taking care to get it "just so," before climbing atop an old packing crate. He stood poised atop the crate for a moment then launched himself, coming down on the pylon. Crack! I heard the sound of the pylon breaking from across the yard.

Stupidly, I asked him, "Henry, why did you do that?"

Without missing a beat he replied, "I wanted to see if I could break it." Duh.

We had a brief conversation about property after that, although in hindsight I think that "property" has a somewhat different meaning when we spend our time on a junkyard playground like ours, but I keep this episode in mind whenever people begin to talk about "play with a purpose," a mantra for those who have accepted the importance of play while clinging to the hubristic notion that children need adults to "make" it educational. Here was a boy with a question, one of his own devising, and therefore one in which he had a genuine interest. He was motivated by his curiosity, Can I break this? and set up an experiment in which he discovered his answer.

The standard definitions of play frame it as "for enjoyment" or "recreation," which can clearly both be aspects of play, but those of us who spend our lives observing children going about the business of actually playing know that there is always a question behind what they do, even if it's not one that can be stated as clearly as Henry's. The purpose of the player isn't always evident to the observer, but there is always, beneath the enjoyment or recreation, an inquiry of some sort at work, one that might not always lead to a definitive answer as Henry's experiment did, but is an exploration of oneself, the other people, and both the physical and psychological environment in which the child finds himself. Play is how our instinct to educate ourselves manifests.

When it comes to education, play is enough: it contains within it all the important questions and answers. We don't need adults commanding, coaxing, coaching, or cajoling the children in order for it to be purposeful. When I hear people use the phrase "play with a purpose" (or something similar) I cringe because no matter how well intended, I know that these are people who don't trust the children's natural instincts and so feel compelled, however gently, to turn their self-directed learning into yet another adult-directed activity that may or may not lead children to answers that are important to them.

Not long ago, I watched a teacher attempt to compel a group of five-year-olds through a type of relay race she had designed to help the children "deepen" their understanding of the autumn leaves they had collected, matching like-with-like and so on. The teacher's enthusiasm and the children's curiosity about this "game" she was describing was enough to keep them interested for a few minutes as they waited in queues for their turn to race from one end of the room to the other, but it wasn't long before there were children exploring under tables, chatting with friends, and, in the case of one boy, simply moping against the wall. The teacher started by trying to cheerfully coax them all back into the game, but it didn't take. She tried to ignore the rebellions to focus on the children who were still engaged in her play-with-a-purpose game, although it seemed to me that most of them were doing it by way of pleasing their teacher more than because the game held their interest. I sympathized with the teacher as I watched her jaw twitch because I have experienced similar episodes in my own teaching past, but the bottom line is that she had managed to turn their natural interest in things like collecting fall leaves and running into a chore from which none of them were learning much other than perhaps a lesson in obedience and disobedience.

Children's play is always purposeful even if we can't tell what that purpose is and it's always educational even if we don't know what they are learning. The moment the adult imposes her own agenda, play comes to an end no matter how playful their top-down agenda tries to be. Children will always lose interest because the questions are not their own and without interest "learning" becomes a chore for everyone.

Play is a pure good, like love or happiness, and, like love or happiness, it tends to disappear when we overthink it.

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