Wednesday, July 29, 2015

"They Seem Baffled"

Yesterday, while cycling to school, I ran into a couple of Woodland Park parents on their own bike commute. They've spent time this summer with friends and relatives in other parts of the country, some of whom are public school teachers. They have also been heavily involved over the course of the last year and a half in the creation of our new Woodland Park kindergarten and, as a result, have been educating themselves on the philosophy of education and play-based education even more so than our typical cooperative parents.

"Tom, I'm sure they're good teachers, but they just can't get their minds around what we're doing. I tried to explain, but it was so far outside their normal experience that they seemed baffled."

Now, I recognize that I live and work in a bubble and that those of you who read this blog are, for the most part, inside of it with me, but I like to tell myself that we're starting to get the word out the educational centrality of play. From where I sit, the science is settled, children need free play, and lots of it, in order to become the kinds self-motivated critical thinkers who live satisfying, productive lives. This isn't something I need to "sell" in my day-to-day life: our classes are full because people seek us out.

It's conversations like this, however, that cause me to understand how far we really need to go.

Last week, a colleague excitedly sent me a snap shot she had taken of a paragraph she'd come across in a new social skills curriculum they were going to be using in her school, enthusing, "There's hope!"

. . . Teacher-provided fun, although sometimes initially labeled as stupid or childish, will before long win over the play-loving hearts inside our students . . . Scientists are very interested in the role of play in neurological development, and some researchers see play as a central part of brain development, one important way to build complex, creative, flexible brains that will help them negotiate adulthood. Whatever such research helps us decide, the positive effects of play and other kinds of fun seem to consistently provide us with students who are more interested in life and more engaged. We'll take that quickened state and convert it into learning. And when the learning itself is fun, we have all we need to succeed.

She was excited because it was the first time she had come across the "p" word in a year of educational reading and saw it as a sign of progress. And I'm going to take her word for it that it is, but if this is progress, we still have a shockingly long way to go. It's encouraging, I suppose, that they've got the message that play is somehow linked to building "complex, creative, flexible brains, but it's clear that the creators of this curriculum are baffled by it.

"Teacher-provided fun" is not play. Play is not a Machiavellian tool simply designed to "win over" hearts. It's not just "some researchers" who see play as central to brain development, it's most; those that doubt the importance of play are outliers. "Play" and "fun" are not synonymous, indeed, play is rich, engaging, serious, hard work, full of anger and tears as well as joy: as far as I know there has never been any research done on "fun" as a component of education and to conflate it with play is to suggest that a child's play is frivolous. And the role of play in education is not to use it as a lever to "convert it into learning," it is learning damn it! And to top everything off, the passage ends with the worn-out cliche that teachers need to make learning fun. Reading this, you would conclude that play is just the proverbial spoon full of sugar that helps the medicine go down.

No, play is how we've evolved to learn. The rest is just noise. I'm so happy to be living in my bubble where people are not baffled by this.

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Nancy said...

You tell 'em Tom.

MissFifi said...

I have often wondered why co-op/Montessori/Waldorf/unconventional education type play cannot be carried into kindergarten and perhaps first and second grade. Why do people or society as a whole act as if you are not doing well and buckling down in academia starting in kindergarten, it will ruin you for life. What do we suddenly have against free time and play for children? Really baffles me

Lynette said...

We do have a long way to go and many are baffled by play. I hope to make a difference where I teach at.

Jules Beesley said...

“That sense of ‘playing the game’ which emerges when children evolve their own activities is a real thing: it is a felt relationship between little human beings who must co-operate to achieve their common aim. And to achieve this aim they must create a pattern—the rules of the game which give coherence and form to their activities. In such spontaneously evolved patterns, giving pleasures and satisfaction to the growing animal instincts and desires, lies hidden the pattern of a society in which all persons are free, but freely consenting to a common purpose.”
- Herbert Read, The Education of Free Men 1944