Monday, July 20, 2009

People Outside of Time

I’ve posted before about the Fremont Summer Solstice Parade, but there is another less well-known, but just as fun, parade that takes place late on the night before.

Most of the “mass” of the parade – the floats – are built at the Powerhouse, headquarters of the Fremont Arts Council, which is located a good 2 miles from the start of the parade. Our “midnight parade” involves moving the floats through the streets of Fremont and to the starting line. It’s a surreal little event, with an audience of Friday night revelers caught unawares by giant paper mache sculptures, bizarre constructions, and dozens of giddy people who are stopping traffic to maneuver these alien objects through the night time streets. People on the sidewalks stare then cheer as they realize what they’re seeing.

I was at the front of our silly Superhuggers float along with my philosopher friend John. At one point we realized that we’d been fighting against the lock on one of our wheels. In the struggle to release the by-now firmly fixed lock we fell behind, separated from the rest of the parade by a normally busy intersection that had already been closed for far too long. It was down hill for us from that point, so once the brake was released we took off, six of us running like crazy with this unreliable conveyance of red, white and silver hearts on hardware store casters. When we cleared the intersection there was a moment of panic as we put all our weight into avoiding a full-speed collision with the Cat in the Hat float ahead of us. It would have been a tragic accident for the funny pages.

Out of breath and red faced, I asked John, “Can you believe it? We’re grown-ups doing this.”

He answered, “We’re not grown-ups right now. We’re people outside of time.”

What underpins Woodland Park’s curriculum is the proposition that play is the natural way for young children to learn, and that fostering play with other people is the most important thing we do. I think this is true for most preschools. We don’t line preschoolers up in their desks. We don’t lecture them. We don’t assign homework, conduct memorization drills, or test them. These are preschoolers and everyone knows that they learn best through play.

When do we stop learning best through play? Probably never, but by the time most of our children are in 1st grade they’re passively listening to lectures, memorizing spelling words, and studying for tests. Why?

The answer is as complex as society, of course, but it has to do with class size, official curriculum, standardized testing, and the inertia of entrenched institutions. You could make the argument that it’s a product of industrialization; that Western culture has evolved to consider the primary societal benefit of schools to be vocational training. (When was the last time you heard a politician talk about schools without mentioning the economy?) Or maybe it’s that we focus too much on what children need to learn rather than on what they want to learn.

Whatever the reasons, play becomes separated from education as children move through our educational system. It gets increasingly parsed out into PE and recess and field trips. Sure, there are a lot of innovative teachers out there who make learning fun, but the ghetto-ization of play is invariably the trend as we make our way through the years of formalized learning.

This isn’t to say that we don’t try to play as we grow into adults. We all have hobbies and recreations that we attempt to wedge in between yard work and housework and running errands, but rarely do we meet grown-ups in this country for whom play is central to their lives.

When I coached baseball in Germany, my team, the Yahoos, was comprised of men in their 20's, most of whom worked in the Volkswagen factory. They would recite their priorities:

1) Family
2) Hobby
3) Work

It was like a mantra: Familie, hobby, arbeit. The Yahoos were men who consciously lived important parts of their lives outside of time. To this day baseball is more central to the lives of these German guys than it is to most of the millions of American baseball fans. I know that when I say that baseball is one of my hobbies, what I mean is that I mostly watch it on TV. And watching TV isn’t play.

In contrast to these Yahoos, we tend to relegate our hobbies to the bottom of the list, like an afterthought. We wait until all our work is done before we play. And all too often we’re so exhausted that our play suffers. We spend the important part of our lives living almost entirely inside of time.

When it comes to play, those of us with young children in our lives are the fortunate ones. I like to think I’m pretty good at playing, but I’m a piker next to preschoolers. They are the undisputed experts. As I reflect on each day after the children have gone home, I’m always amazed by the breadth and depth of their knowledge and skill. The days seem full and long. So much happens. So much is learned. But while they play with me the time seems to pass in the blink of an eye. It almost ceases to exist, only to return to me when they have gone home.

This simple message is one of the greatest gifts our children have to give: Play is why we're here.

I’ve replayed that supercharged moment of racing across the intersection over and over in my mind for the past month. We were not grown-up people that night as our midnight parade wound its way through the streets of Fremont. We were playing together, being silly, laughing heatedly into one another’s faces. Time did not exist and all that remained was the fun we were having together.

Playing with others is love.


Monkey's Mama said...

I really love your blog!

Teacher Tom said...

Thank you!

Janina said...

I discovered your blog very recently and in a short few weeks it has become part of the steps I take to remind myself about the things you wrote about in this post!

"This simple message is one of the greatest gifts our children have to give: Play is why we're here."

It seems to me that when people are at their most miserable, they have likely all but forgotten this universal purpose of human life. Otherwise...what is the point? I feel truly lucky to be a parent.

Thank you so much!