Monday, April 22, 2019

Reinventing It Themselves

On garbage day in my old neighborhood, after the trash had been collected, we would play with the galvanized steel cans that stood empty along the curb of our street. One game was to convert our red wagons into race cars by turning the cans on their sides, then wrestling them into the the wagon beds. We would sit with our feet inside, reaching over the top of the can to grab the wagon's tongue which we would use for steering.

When we watch children play, much, if not most, of what we see them doing is attempting to re-create aspects of their world, what the great developmental psychologists Jean Piaget referred to as "reinventing it themselves." As a boy living in a suburban neighborhood, cars played an important role in our lives -- they signaled the comings and goings of our fathers, they were our conveyances for adventures to places beyond our day-to-day world, they were a source of pride and concern for the adults -- so it's no wonder we sought to more fully understand them through reinvention.

We marched in lines with stick guns on our shoulders the way we saw the soldiers do at the nearby Fort Jackson, we set up pretend grocery stores, we played made-up versions of the sports we caught glimpses of on television, we played at being families, congregations, and classrooms full of students. And yes, we imagined ourselves to be the heroes of our favorite movies, television programs, and books. Teachers see this sort of imaginative play all around us every day as the children we teach do exactly as we did, and what our parents did before us.

As teachers and parents, the temptation is to try to help them along their path of understanding, to interject with vocabulary or concepts or our own ideas, hoping to somehow hurry or deepen their learning, but we do so at the risk of interfering with this process that is as old as humanity, this urge to understand the world by reinventing it ourselves. No matter how well-intended, unless done with great and subtle care, more often than not our interruptions, rather than boosting children along their self-selected path of learning, have the impact of either derailing them or, perhaps worse, forever robbing them of the opportunity to come to real understanding on their own.

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