Monday, October 19, 2015

Why Are We Afraid Of Children Playing?

Geysir, sometimes known as the Great Geysir, is a geyser in southwest Iceland. It was the first one known to Europeans and, as such, is the namesake of all the subsequent geysers discovered around the globe. Last week, I had the opportunity to visit Geysir where I joined a flock of tourists standing around a wet, steamy hole in the ground, waiting, waiting, waiting, until suddenly a giant dome of water, a bubble several meters across, would form before explosively bursting to send a spectacular tower of boiling water into the sky. 

In a couple posts last week I mentioned the weeklong Play Iceland conference I attended with some 40 other likeminded play-based early childhood educators. This group is about more than just professional development for teachers being presented in an exotic location: it is, I think, part of an international grassroots movement to elevate our understanding of free play. This is important stuff, because if everyone understood play, the world would be transformed.

I first learned about Play Iceland through, Hulda Hreiðarsdóttir, the proprietor of Fafu Toys, a company that evolved into Fafunia, "a place or space where parents and practitioners can support learning and skill building through play." Yes, she had toys and furniture and other things to sell, but what she was always focused on was this grassroots movement. When I committed myself to attend this conference, one of my highest motivations was to meet this woman, whose charm, spirit, and dedication came through even online. Sadly, I never had the chance: she died suddenly, in her sleep, last May at the age of 32. Fittingly, one of her favorite expressions was "Life is random." Indeed.

Her friends and family, in her honor, carried on and now I count myself among them, even if I never actually met her in life. The next step for Play Iceland is to take the playful magic of this place and these people and carry it out into the world. On our final evening together, Tom Shea, Hulda's partner, announced International Play Iceland, with the intention of holding conferences in the US and Australia. He asked me, "Are you in?" and without hesitation, I answered, "Yes!"

In Friday's post, I attempted to encapsulate the message I tried to convey to my fellow conference attendees when it came my turn to speak on our final night. Alone, we are outside-the-mainstream preschool teachers, on the fringes, thriving in the pockets of air that are rising to the surface as the Titanic of corporate-sponsored, factory-inspired education begins to sink. But if we can join our bubbles together, in our neighborhoods, our cities, our provinces, our nations, and across the world; if we can bring our message to the families who already love and trust us, even if it's just one and two at a time; if we can grow this grassroots movement in solidarity with one another, we can become a bubble that puts Geysir to shame, and no one, no matter how much money or power they have, can stand in our way. I will only point to our own recent local teachers strike, one actively supported by parents, as an example of what we can do when we come together on behalf of our children. No force on earth can stand before teachers, parents, and children united.

And there is simply nothing more universal, more necessary, more unifying, than play.

On our final night, while chatting around our dinner table, we asked ourselves the question, "Why do the powers that be seem so afraid of children playing?" And honestly, when we look around us, at every step, those with authority seem hellbent upon squashing play; be it with fear-mongering about the pedophile or drug dealer lurking around every corner; or fear-mongering that we are on the verge of economic collapse because our schools aren't producing the test scores we need to beat the Chinese; or fear mongering about learning loss during summer breaks; or fear-monger about how your child will fall behind if she doesn't have the latest educational toy or isn't reading by the time he is four; or fear-mongering about scrapes, bruises and broken bones; or, in general, fear-mongering about any form of unstructured time, even going so far as to limit recess, in the name of more desk time, to a mere 15 minutes per day. They apparently want our children corralled and controlled and programmed from the moment they are born, doing pretty much anything but playing freely, according to their own desires, instincts and passions the way they were born to do.

They fear children playing because in their hearts they know that if humans are allowed to freely engage with the world, outdoors, unsupervised, with few toys, lots of time, and in the company of other children, they will overturn the world order in a single generation. They fear that their precariously balanced applecart of command and control will be toppled, that their profits will plummet, that their power will crumble, and that they won't have anyone left to wield the guns and cudgels they need to keep us all in line. They fear that if children are allowed to play, they will grow up to both expect freedom and have the critical thinking and creative abilities to make it happen.

As I wrote on Friday, I'm not interested in hearing about what's impossible. We see evidence of this grassroots movement springing up everywhere we look. You may have to look carefully, but our tiny bubbles are all around us, from Iceland to China, from Australia to Greece, and from the US to England. We are rising to the surface, forming together into larger and larger bubbles, until like the Great Geysir we will be so big they won't be able to ignore us.

In the coming days, as I reflect upon my trip, the things I learned, and the people I met there, I hope to inspire you in your little bubble and, in the spirit of Play Iceland, I expect to see you in the bigger one we form together.

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Trisha Dean said...

I'm pretty speechless right now..... in the wake of this read. But one thing I can promise - I'm giving my all to the "grassroots movement", and I'll see you there!

Liz said...

I'm one of the bubbles... KEYU is one of the fissures in which some bubbles are rising. Fantastic thinking and expression of the thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Amazing words Tom! You have started small bubbles in Eastern Oregon! I'm excited to learn and hear more!

Unknown said...

I'm in!

Anonymous said...

Hello from Finland. First of all I do love your spirit! Our children play a lot by themselves. You could find even 4y.o. riding his bicycle unattended on our home street. But we are still to see as "they will grow up to both expect freedom and have the critical thinking and creative abilities to make it happen". It is just not happening because of the free play. Something missing. Tell me, what else do we need to teach/give our children?!

Jessica Lewis said...

Yes! Yes! Yes!

Jessica said...

I've recently taken a page from your book and when people try to explain their reasons for teaching their kids a certain way, especially if it's "fun", I always reply, you don't have to justify it. Play is how children learn. This is what I remind myself when I talk to others about how I'm teaching my own children. Just because I don't have a daily objective or craft or whatever, doesn't mean my children aren't learning. Just earlier they spent over two hours outside just playing in the mud and with bubbles. I may not know what they're learning, but I'm constantly reassured that they are.

Anonymous said...

And in Australia, I'm in too.

Anonymous said...

When will there be more information about the conference in US? I want more!! LOVE THIS!

Unknown said...

I'm in....bring it to the USA or contact me & I'll start it here!

queen of logic said...

Scotland has bubbles too - our group is run on very similar lines and follows a similar philosophy. Reading like minded blogs gives me the energy and drive to continue playing and learning together, rather than working to targets and pre-specified outcomes, no matter how worthy. Yours is one of my favourite blogs and I look forward to reading it everyday