Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Life Itself

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about a conversation with Audrey on the topic of playing. Specifically, I asked her to teach me how to play.

Since then, I've been intrigued with the question, asking dozens of children variations on the theme: Do you know how to play? What is playing? Who taught you how to play?

In my ongoing quest to stop "curating" curriculum materials, at the last moment yesterday
pulled out a box of theater lighting gel scraps a parent donated several years ago. The 
kids got a kick out of changing their perspective by holding it over their faces to change
the color of their world.

I suppose it won't surprise anyone to learn that I've met with mostly dead air. It seems to be an interesting question to them, one to which they all instantly claim to know the answer, but when it comes to putting it into words, they've been hanging thoughtfully in their swings or pausing momentarily in their pirate games, apparently at a loss. None of them have gone beyond Audrey's definition: "You have to throw things up."

We were playing with some of the many boxes we still have left over after our recent
move, many of which are produce boxes with these large rectangular holes in the
bottom. I picked one of them up and pretended to be watching the kids on TV.

I think it was Aristotle who asserted that happiness is unlike all the other emotions in that the moment you recognize it, it goes away. I'm starting to wonder if play is like that as well. Each time I ask a child about play, she stops playing to ponder. When she seems stumped, I've been prompting, "Are you playing right now?" and the answer has always been, "No." My original question seems to somehow pull them out of it, almost as if by asking about play, I'm making it vanish.

Soon the kids were making their own TVs by taping sheets of gel over the holes.

The great progressive educator and theorist John Dewey famously wrote, "Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself," helping us understand that learning is a life-long, all-encompassing thing, impossible to limit to a set of subjects, divided up under headings like math and art and reading and science and PE.  I'm coming to see through the children's responses to my questions that play is like that as well, something that is perhaps simply too large and all inclusive for the "cocktail party" conversations I've been trying to have with them. Indeed, I will try to one-up Dewey this morning by asserting that it's not education, but play that is life itself.

We've not used these tape dispensers much and they were a struggle at first as the
kids figured out how to get them to do what they want. I sat with them at first
coaching, but trying to avoid physically helping them pull off a piece of tape, then
tearing it across the "saw" part. There was a great deal of frustration, but I'm sure if
I asked them, they would still insist that they were playing. I sometimes forget that
every emotion in the world is a necessary part of play.

I think that may be why I find myself so passionately and almost instinctively committed to pushing back against those who seek to turn schools into trivia factories, places where rote memorization and teaching to the test holds the central place. I agree with Edward Hallowell when he writes, "The opposite of play is not work, it's rote," and if, as I'm coming to see, play is life, then rote must therefore be a kind of death.

Later the gel scraps found their way over to the table where we were playing with
Woodkins dolls. When the pieces were too large, the children again struggled with
the process of folding this awkward material down to size.

I'm not going to stop asking the children about play just yet, because the moment I stop pestering them with my questions, they all fall quite readily back into life itself, not seeming any the worse for wear from having taken a moment to think about something too large to really ponder; at least not while right in the midst of living.

Education, play, life: are they really synonyms? I'm tending to think so.

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1 comment:

marcie jan bronstein said...

This is a brilliant post. Your infinite sense of wonder and inquiry is only one small part of what makes you such a gifted teacher. I love reading your blog!