Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Teaching The Skills Of Democracy Through Play

I must run in the right circles because I keep hearing that there are people out there who are skeptical, even antagonistic, toward the idea that play is the natural way for children to learn, but I've never met any of them. Or maybe people just avoid the topic with me, you know, the way you don't bring up the subject of Monty Python or The Lord of the Rings with some people because it will be the topic that consumes the rest of the evening. Or maybe, and this would really make me sad, they don't think preschool is important enough to worry about.

"The very existence of youth is due in part to the necessity for
play; the animal does not play because he is young, he has a
period of youth because he must play." ~Karl Groos

There are business guys out there who are looking to our schools to train their workers for them and if that were the only purpose of education, I suppose, we could just put them on an assembly line and let our quality control team remove the defective ones in the interest of producing the best blueberry ice cream in the world. But there is so much more to a real education than mere vocational training. In fact, I would argue that preparing children for jobs is a small, perhaps incidental, part of what school should be about, especially public education.

There is no adult there to help these guys crossing the bridge
along with their fellow citizens of our little self-governing society,
that they will live in a world where might does not make right,
so they are left to stand there, face-to-face and talk it through.

The reason we have public schools in the first place is for the purposes of the grand experiment of democracy, a well-educated populace being the foundation of self-governance. We are not here primarily to create workers, we are here to create thoughtful, questioning, critical, and yes, assertive citizens, ones who understand the people, and only the people, can make important decisions.

Self-governance requires an understanding of the subtleties of
sharing resources and space with others. These guys are working
out the complex balance between one man's right to build with
another's right to be secure in his own physical space.

People who have been poorly educated in the principles of democracy have a hard time with this notion. It frightens them, I think. They don't understand how the world can work without some kind "iron fist" of leaders or, at least, strict hierarchies. People of different faiths or ethnicities or class make them fear that their own faith or ethnicity or class is besieged.

These girls found a box in the corner, closed, and opened it. They knew
they didn't need to ask anyone for permission because they've come to 
understand that this classroom belongs to them, the citizens of 
Woodland Park. Inside they found something new: building blocks
that allowed them to seek their own path, not one pre-determined
by the dictatorship of those big wooden blocks.

A well-educated citizen understands that the challenges presented by our differences are also our greatest strength, but only if we are firmly convinced of the truth that all men are created equal, not just in the eyes of god, but in the eyes of one another. This does not, of course, mean that everyone gets their own way all the time, but it does mean that we get to argue for our own point of view, to have our voices heard. It also means that we must negotiate, compromise and, yes, sometimes even step aside.

Sometimes we need help figuring things out as we play, 
because it is serious business. As teachers we step in, not as
"bosses" or HR departments with solutions that come directly from 
the employee manual, but with listening ears,questioning words, and 
respect for our fellow citizens. The goal is not to impose 
peace, but to rather help clarify the situation so the two parties
can hammer out their own compromise.

Play as a curriculum is the only way I know to imbue students with these citizenship skills. No amount of testing or drilling or lecturing will get us there, although it might well produce docile, productive workers. You can't learn the skills needed for self-governance from flash cards or rote memorization or being put on an educational "fast track." No, the only way to learn the skills needed for democracy is through the kind of experience that comes from the real world laboratory of playing with your fellow citizens.

And, indeed, the skills of citizenship are often diametrically opposed to those expected of mere workers. Citizens must know that it is not only their right, but their responsibility, to question authority.

And when we do that, guys like Bill Gates call us their "enemy," which tells me were doing the right thing.

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Barbara Zaborowski said...

Inspiring! We all need reminders of what we're truly doing. And, as for Bill Gates, remember, Microsoft needs a couple of geniuses and a whole bunch of workers bees.

Centers and Circle Time said...

I'm always happy to visit your blog...inspiring, insightful, just something I can sink my teeth into!

No, my dear Tom people will not talk to you about the importance of play, not because the don't "believe" or their afraid to. But because secretly their hoping and praying the teacher don't tell them their kids' behind. And God forbid I let them out of my class without having mastered the Alphabet and phonetic sounds!! Our program is considered below average and all the parents will send their children to a school that's sure to prepare them of academic success. What "no child left behind" fails to inform these nervous parents is that by third grade, they're all on level playing field anyway...whether they got the ABC in preschool or in Kindergarten! Thanks for tackling the hard stuff and leaving the "frills and fluff" to us:)

minnie said...

i love those huge building blocks the kids are working with. Did you make them?!

Olivia Jean said...

Do you guys have meetings? I have heard of some preschools introducing democratic meetings, and I hope to do so in my own future preschool. I know that schools like the Brooklyn Free School and Albany Free School have meetings with young children, but usually with older children involved.

This is the only example I have ever seen of preschool democratic meetings...

I would love to hear how it goes at your school!

Teacher Tom said...

@Minnie . . . No, I didn't make the blocks. They're manufactured by a company that still exists . . . Community something. I'm pretty sure you can get a similar set, however, from Discount School Supply.

@Olivia Jean . . . We don't have "meetings" per se, but we use our daily circle times like meetings. In fact, we often go 30+ minutes without singing a single song because we have so much to talk about. We make all of our own rules, for instance (although in that case we go beyond democracy and work to build consensus on each and every rule). Our older children vote on all kinds of things, however, from which book to read to what we are going to do next . . . I'll take a look at your link. Thanks!