Thursday, August 20, 2020

Play Instead of "Playishness": Making Things Suck Just a Little Bit Less

I've been seeing lots of lists lately of ways educators do play-based education via computer. In fact, I had several emailed to me by teachers who are offended by my assertion that hours a day of remote learning, especially for young children, sucks and that, at best, we might be able to make is suck a little bit less. These lists include things like "math games" and doing yoga and STEM challenges and scavenger hunts. In other words they are lists populated with classic examples of what I call "playishness".

Playishness is how I talk about those things that might seem like play, but are really just exercises in direct instruction using toys, movement, and art supplies instead of lectures and text books. Often you find these sorts of things under the heading, "play with a purpose," a sure indication that what you're going to do is not play at all, but rather the same old adult-directed "activities" dressed up as play. It's the difference between, say, a physical education class where kids are made to participate in a soccer match whether they like it or not, and simply turning them loose on a playground. Some of them might still choose to play soccer, but most won't, choosing instead to test themselves or their world in any number of ways, building a curriculum from the real world around them rather than the artificial one of activities that adults have constructed for them.

Can real play happen through a computer screen? Sure. It happens every time a child sits down in front of a screen of their own volition to play a video game of their own choosing or to pursue their curiosity through self-directed research about fossils or spiders. It happens when a child is free to walk away and do something else whenever they chose. It happens when a child is actively engaged, in their own way, rather than according to the instructions of an adult. 

Early on in the pandemic, I "hosted" some video conference "play dates" with groups of former preschool students. My full agenda was simply to say "hello" to my friends and to provide a forum in which they could say "hello" to one another. Some of them told us about their lives, others showed us their toys, danced like "silly heads," and we even sang the occasional song without my insisting that everyone join in. Some tried making the other kids laugh. They inspired one another into imitation with stories, antics, and showing off. Others played with their toys while the rest of us goofed off in the background. Some just watched. At any given moment half of those little Brady Bunch boxes were empty because the kids had left to do something else. One girl gave us a tour of her house, ending in the back yard when she stumbled and dropped the computer in her wading pool. It was a new landscape that they explored the way children do. 

There was a limit to how long our sessions could be so it cut off after an hour or so, but I've since wished we had purchased the opportunity to have unlimited time. What if we'd just left the screens on all day, allowing life itself to be the curriculum? What if instead of treating the screens as adult-created activity delivery systems, we allowed them to serve simply as windows through which we could interact when we wanted and how we wanted? At least, that's how I treated those short one-hour sessions, talking occasionally, striving to not dominate, trying to create space for the children to make it their own. 

Of course, I was counting on those children's parents to ensure their safety, so my full focus could be on observing (what little there was to observe) and listening (what little I could make out with so many children talking at once). In other words, the children's parents, by necessity, were my co-teachers during that time online. So please understand, I'm not offering this as a solution to anyone. You don't need to tell me that not every family is in a position to co-teach with professional educators in this way. The fact that so many families can't participate in the lives of their own children is a big part of the reason our preschools have become activity factories designed to keep children busy all day while their parents go to work. What we as a society are confronting right now is not a crisis in education, but rather a crisis of child care, and computer screen windows will never be able to provide anything close to high quality child care. This dynamic is as clear as day to all of us even as we try to make the most of it.

I'm just here to say that what we did together online sucked in comparison to actually being together, but it sucked a little bit less because it did, most of the time, at least feel like actual play instead of playishness, and it took a village to make it happen.


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