Sunday, June 10, 2012

Let's Define Play

I write quite a bit, okay almost exclusively, about "play-based" education. That's the term I prefer because it tells me everything I need to know. Others prefer "child-lead" or "inquiry-based" or "hands-on" and while each of those terms (and others) gets at a piece of it for me, the word play is such a plump berry of a word, one from which a whole way of experiencing the world can be squeezed.

It's come to my attention, both recently and forever, that not everyone hears what I hear when the word is evoked. I know I'm probably dealing with this sort of person, for instance, when they use the phrase "it's just play" or "they're just playing." That, to me, is no different than saying, "it's just education," "it's just love," or "it's just life." It tells me they don't see the vital centrality of play, a word I've often used as a synonym for "love" or "life" or "education." I imagine that for some people, perhaps many people, play is something from childhood, a favorite stuffed bear they've boxed up to stash in a corner of the attic, only occasionally stumbled across, usually while looking for something else, an artifact being saved for the grandkids.

Of course, I know there are many who understand play the way I do, as life itself, but who are in a position in which they fear that the very serious people they must persuade, the ones who hold the purse strings or the authority to say "yes" won't understand, so they pack it with a padding of academic sounding jargon designed to make it sound a lot like something they already believe. It's clever salesmanship, of course, but it's also just one more kick of the can down the road, one more lost opportunity to have the very serious people begin to understand why play is so much more than childish frolic.

There is a sustained push from the "top" right now to make our schools into academic work houses, places in which children spend their days learning what committees and companies have determined they should learn via teaching methods that are actually proscribed within the curriculum, where there are longer days, larger classes, more technology and fewer teachers, where test scores and grades are the products, where the primary objective is to compete economically with the Chinese. It's the kind of top-down hierarchical approach favored by old-school CEOs and other dictators. Most of our high schools are already well along this road. It's not education, but rather a kind of machine that makes an assembly line product by rote, one that may look and feel like the real thing to reform dilettantes, but is seen by the rest of us as the plastic and saccharine education-like stand-in that it is.

And here we are at the "bottom," we early childhood folks. They're more or less leaving us alone right now, here in our ghetto where we rely on actual data and research that supports the centrality of play, but it won't be long before they've pushed their way down through middle school and start in on us. They hope (and we know it's a false hope, so expect them to turn instead to fear-mongering) that by the time they get to us they'll actually have some facts upon which to base their predetermined theories. Let's not wait. Let's call it what it is: "rote-based" education; the opposite of "play-based." It's time to start pushing back, up from the bottom, because like it or not we are on the front lines in what is truly a battle between ideology and reality.

And if I have any say, we will not back away from the word "play" as we do so. Play is our most important and persuasive tool. 

I'm going to try this without checking first to see what Webster or Oxford has to say about it. 

Play is open-ended. 

Play is what you do when no one is telling you what to do; it's self-selected; it's freely chosen. 

Play is the way the human animal naturally answers its own questions; play is how we satisfy our curiosity.

Play is science, exploration, invention, and discovery.

Play is taking risks, challenging authority, thinking critically, and questioning the status quo.

Play is an active engagement with the real world and the people we find there.

Play is how we learn about the link between failure, perseverance, and success.

Play is holistic, inclusive, universal.

The antonym of "play" is "rote," which stands at the heart of the assembly line approach. The most perfect synonyms for play are "art," "life," "love," and "education." For me, the word "play" encompasses everything worth knowing, and that's why I'll continue to use it.

And while you're here, how about dropping your own definition of "play" into a comment. I know I still have a lot to learn, because that's the most important thing play teaches us.

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Matt said...

Awesome post. As a K teacher, I get frustrated by the push from the top down to make my sprouts into first graders when they, plain and simple, are kindergartners. I'd love to pose this question: How do we stop it? How do we push back? (Ok - maybe that's two questions.) I continually incorporate play into my students' day, but sooner or later, I fear that is going to be taken away.

Jeanne Zuech said...

Hello Tom! Well done, so very well done. I will add:
Play is loud, messy, colorful, intentional, boisterous, full of song, full of stomping, full of quiet, sometimes delicate. Play is the private need expressed by each individual, in their own moment, to uncover and unfold their world.
'Play it forward.'

Teacher Tom said...

@Matt . . . I think part of it is this: talking to each other. I think a big part of pushing back is talking to parents, making the learning clear to them, having them understand what a play-based (as opposed to a rote-based) education looks like. Beyond that, I'm looking for answers. I don't know if we need to actually form our own group or if we can join up with something that already exists. I know that Diane Ravich, Ken Robinson and others are already out there in front and maybe we ought to track with them. I don't know, but if we all keep talking I think we'll figure it out.

@Jeanne . . . Great addition!

kclblogs said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
kclblogs said...

Play is an essential part of the development of the young child, and should be seen as nothing less, IMO. Sutton-Smith goes as far as to call it "an opportunity to practice the human act of survival." The variability it provides helps us build skills to gain control of risks and uncertainties in our lives. It motivates us to make changes in our environment so that we can re-experience more of the positives and less of the negatives. It gives children the autonomy to create their own culture, which is separate from the adult culture (in which they are often treated as the "underclass"). It allows them a respite from a world that often confines them.

Anonymous said...

Play is a child's most important 'work'.

Self propelled and directed towards organically learning about everything. Everything.

Barb Mathieson said...

Jerome Bruner argued that "the main characteristic of play - whether of child or adult - is not its content but is mode. Play is an approach to action, not a form of activity."

I will be sharing your blog post with my university students. They are all training to be early childhood educators and it is so critical that they be able to be strong advocates for play.

Floor Pie said...

Tom, if you're serious about starting a play revolution, my advice would be to start locally, with Seattle Public Schools.

We are very lucky to live somewhere with a vibrant community of education activists who actually have a voice. Meetings are public, school board members and district officials are accessible, and those squeaky wheels do occassionally get a chance to make a difference.

Also, we live somewhere where voters consistently support public schools through levies and oppose ed reform by voting down charters again and again. AND we have a new leader taking over in a few months. The old regime is pretty much done. The mood is cautious. In my case, it's cautiously optimistic.

I know you're not a fan of boring meetings or boring reports about boring meetings, but if you can follow it just enough to pick up on the lingo and the key players, that will be enough to get your foot in the door. Find out what the school district is doing and how it relates to your own agenda. They are more open to hearing from taxpayers when it relates to specific decisions they are in the process of making. Get a group together and sign up to testify at board meetings. Students are allowed to testify, too. Director DeBell is very encouraging of that.

I would also encourage you to come up with a few actionable items that you'd like to see. Is there a particular curriculum or practice you'd like to see them adopt? Can you show them data from a school that has a play-based curriculum and also boasts high MSP scores? Unschooled students who score well on MSPs without traditional test prep? This is the sort of thing that might persuade them. Prove to them that play WORKS.

It's a tedious process all right, but I think we absoutely must work WITH our public schools and not against them. And if you're going to work with them, at least at first, it has to be on their terms. It's annoying to negotiate all the layers of process and bureaucracy, but there are real students underneath it all, and that's how we reach them.

Leslie said...

healing, a window to the soul, connection. Loved this post.

Unknown said...

Play is the only way you can get back to the ethereal land of being young. It's our only way out of being a grown up.

Aunt Annie said...

Play is what you chose to do yourself, of your own free will. Your mind is open because you chose it, you're there because you want to be, and so you can't help but learn as you play. You want to know, because you chose it. You want to try, because you chose it. You want to extend, because it interested you in the first place- and you want more play, always; you want to GROW that play to become more and more interesting, more and more fun. I'm playing right now, because I want to be here, and I want to think about this because it's interesting. Play is not just for kids.

amaerkl said...

Play energizes us, it can be challenging and difficult. It is our bliss, time slips by as we feel truly alive in the moment of play.

Gina said...

I love this post. I work for an organization that provides early education to children with special needs. We are an inclusive program, assisting children to be successful in the natural environments they would be in if they did not have a disability.

One of our four core values is learning through PLAY. It was how children were meant to learn. You conjured up imagery of a plump berry when you utilize the word play. I like it. For myself, the word play always has exclamation marks floating around it. It is such exciting, discovery-filled, enriching, engaging, active, and meaningful!

I love reading about your preschool activities--it all looks like great play--some days I wish I could just fly down and join in the fun! Looking forward to more stories of play!

Stacey said...

I think Katie hit the nail on the head with her quote from Sutton-Smith, "an opportunity to practice the human act of survival." So absolutely true on many levels.

This blog comes at time when the parents of the children in our school district (as I am sure is the same in many others) have to face important decisions for the future of their children. The choice of sending their child off to Kindergarten next year, attending public pre-K that is in the school, or staying with us in the private, play based childhood education center. I often advocate for "red-shirting" children, especially children with a birthday so close to the cut-off point. However, that leads to the question of where do they go then? Public Pre-K is inviting to hard working parents because it's free. But I fear that parents don't understand that by doing that, they are simply just sending their child off to the "factory" at an earlier age than they are ready for.

Which leads to my next thought, what about changing the age in which children attend Kindergarten? What if we say that children entering Kindergarten need to be six years old. We will have given them an extra year to "practice the human act of survival" or play as we call it. A chance to be emotionally/socially ready to take on the challenges of school.

If you think about it, kindergarten is the old first grade as we used to know it. Thinking about schools such as our nearby school that has a cutoff date in Dec., children as young as 4 are heading into Kindergarten. Would you place your 4 or 5 year old in first grade?

Scary huh? Something to think about...

MissJosephineB said...

One of the most important, and certainly most memorable, things I learned in graduate school is that the original understanding of the word "scholar" is "one who PLAYs with ideas." I absolutely agree with this post (well, with all of your posts really, I am an avid reader) and I wish there were more like you, and Ken Robinson, and Alphie Kohn who understand what is going wrong with our education system right now and how much better it can become just by bringing the "play" back to scholarship. Thank you, Tom for continually doing your part to further this dialogue, hopefully with enough voices the message will be taken with the seriousness it deserves. I, too work at a play-based early ed center in Seattle and use your blog constantly as an example for my fellow teachers. Thanks again for always providing such wonderful food for thought!

Anonymous said...

Some of my favorite quotes about play: "Play is the work of children. It is very serious stuff". (Bob Keeshan - Captain Kangaroo)

"Play is one of the primary ways children discover their world. It allows them to explore and express themselves, to learn on their own, control their environment and connect with others."

"Play is child's work. Play stimulates a child's curiosity, creativity and intellect, which helps the child to make sense of their world."

Oh, we should all be like children and play more!

Anonymous said...

Wow, I'd never really thought before about how difficult it is to define "play." I just looked up a dictionary definition, and it says play is anything you engage in for enjoyment rather than a serious purpose...that doesn't seem to get at it nearly as well as what you've lined up. Your definition seems open enough to incorporate a wide variety of different types of play - from the kinds of play you often see in a preschool environment to the intellectual play of a scientist who is really into experimenting about plasma.

As an educator really interested in how creativity is taught, I wonder what the direct relationship between play and the creative process is. I see the links to taking risks and learning about failure. Do you know of any resources for considering this question?



Dee said...

Our 6yo has had access to what we call at home "the crazy makin' box" and typically he gets into that and creates something. I am finding though as he has gotten older, that now he ends up getting in to hi legos instead. Probably because we are in the midst of a transition here and the crazy makin' box is not as accessible. May I ask a question, how do your organize all of your "open ended" toys or things?