Saturday, January 19, 2013


Not long ago a reader wrote to me:

When I read your blog I get inspired about a play-based education for my child, but when I visited a play-based school in our area it just looked like the teacher was using it as an excuse to be lazy. She just sat there while the kids wandered around. It's a lovely place, but they looked bored and the teacher looked bored. Are they doing something wrong or is that the way a play-based school looks to amateurs? Maybe it only works with a Teacher Tom???

This reader has had a glimpse of the ugly underbelly. I too have visited purportedly play-based schools in which it appears that the idea has been translated as a teacher, a bunch of indoor toys, a bunch of outdoor toys, and a bunch of kids. As a recipe for a play-date or two, that's sufficient, but it quickly turns to thin gruel when consumed day-after-day.

As Dr. Edward Hallowell writes, "The opposite of play isn't work, it is rote," and rote is what happens to anything, even play, when the learning environment fails to evolve. I don't care how many toy stoves you have or how state-of-the-art your climber, for any particular group of kids, the play value of anything diminishes over time without the introduction of change, both large and small, both permanent and temporary.

Our outdoor classroom is a good example, a magnificent space created by our parent community two summers ago during a single week between the last day of school in our former location and the start of our summer program. It was envisioned not as a playground full of toys like swings, slides and climbers, but rather as a collection of "areas" in which certain types of activities can take place -- large motor, tinkering, art, construction, science and nature, sensory. When we stepped back and looked at our work, we spoke of it not as a finished product, but rather as a starting point.

For instance, I'd always hoped we would add some sort of play house to the space, usually imagining it as somehow connected our large sculptural windmill. I'd spoken to many people about it, guys with tools mostly, but also to anyone who would listen, both probing for ideas as well as poking around to see if I could spark another parent project. But up until now, the "third teacher" wasn't, I guess, quite ready for it as all of our energetic conversations sort of faded off without anything happening until early this year when Finn and Grey's mom Jenny asked me if we wanted a backyard playhouse that had, for her boys, become "rote." When we returned from our December holiday break, there it was, almost as if it had always been there, yet another funky parent-lead addition to our funky child-lead classroom.

For the past two weeks, at any given moment, there have been kids in there, those kids often being Finn and Grey who have re-discovered their playhouse in its new iteration. Already we're talking about further evolution: maybe the kids ought to paint it; maybe we'll need to remove the roof; maybe it should be shifted to a different location . . . Conversations that may go no where or everywhere.

Scientists tell us that in most instances evolution is a slow process, with small, incremental advances, but sometimes it happens in sudden lurches. This has happened to our outdoor classroom here at the beginning of the new year.

It had become evident since the summer that our sand pit row boat wasn't much longer for this world. Constructed from wood, it's been with us for 6-7 years, weathering hundreds of children as well as the elements without the benefit of regular coats of paint. Earlier this year, despite holes drilled into it's hull, we were having a problem with standing water, so I dug down through the sand, circle saw attached to my drill, for the purpose of further perforating the bottom when I discovered that I could achieve the project with a single finger through the rotting wood. It was time for a new boat, preferably one made of metal.

Again, I began just talking about it, probing and prodding until Cecelia's mom Eliza let me know that her in-laws were looking to get rid of a 12-footer aluminum vessel. A week ago, a group of us carried it into the space over our heads as the children played, laying it in the sand, where it appears it will remain for the time being. So now, as our old boat continues its inevitable sinking to the bottom on the sand pit, we now have a wonderful new-to-us rower perched for now atop the sand, pointing its prow uphill where, when the water is turned back on at the end of winter, we will be able to use our cast iron water pump to make a river of rapids to flow around it.

All too often I hear people talk about "purpose built" or "state-of-the-art" spaces for children, both indoors and out. It all sounds good, but I think too often these environments bear within them the seeds of their own demise: like the playhouse in Finn and Grey's backyard that became mere routine and rote.   I fear that it becomes a message to teachers that says, "Here's your perfect learning environment, don't let anything happen to mess it up." It's why you never see paint spots on the ceiling of so-called state-of-the-art schools.

All too often I find myself struggling to "maintain" some aspect of our environment, grumbling to myself before or after class about the day-to-day drudgery of putting this or that back in order, in effect, unconsciously fighting against change and for rote. For weeks now, the children, during clean-up, have been stashing a new collection of kitchen timers, not on a shelf where I keep them, but rather tucked into the cavities of some blocks on the other side of the room. Finally, on Friday I left them there where the children clearly feel they belong, deciding to not fight the water as it flows downhill.

All too often I discover it is in my nature to fight change, when it is, in truth, the change that makes a play-based curriculum work. And that is how I'd answer the reader who wrote me: a play-based curriculum must embrace change; the alternative is rote.

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
Bookmark and Share -->


Unknown said...

Thank you for your writings. You always make me think.

Cass said...

Firstly I love your blog. I have a favourite trip of blogs that I read everyday. Teacher Tom, Free-Range Kids, and AHA Parenting.

Secondly. I am wondering if you would do a series about mess in the preschool and how it is dealt with.

I see kids in winter jackets covered in paint. What do the parents think of this. Do you try to control the level of mess?

Do I indoor playthings get wrecked and covered in paint? Does you new carpet get footprints all over it?

I love my daughter getting messy. We keep a patch of dirt under our fruit trees because kids deserve dirt to play in. The other day we were stuck indoors due to heat (110F in your terms) and somehow she ended up playing with paper in water. Lots of fun but she was covered in horrid specks of paper that stuck to everything. Not to mentioned she bought clumps to me to show me. What a mess. I loved it and didn't hinder the play but at the same time mess is a lot of work to clean up. Easy for just me but how do you do it in a preschool?

Faigie said...

This is such an amazing point. When I first got into education there were so many teachers that touted the "children learn through play" theory while they just sat on the side and let children play with the same old boring trucks, dolls and blocks day after day. It is so refreshing to read about how play how to be kind of set up by adults for the kids to get the most our of it and the teacher and adults involved must become truly active participants in the children play. It is what makes a good early childhood program exciting.

cass said...

Just saw my comment up above... Ugh, sorry about all the typing errors. My iPhone is not the best tool for commenting on blogs :(