Wednesday, June 09, 2021

How Children Take Ownership of Their Lives

As far as playthings go, toys, at least as we tend to think of them, are newcomers. In fact, almost any human born before, say, 1950 or so probably didn't play with toys much at all. Oh sure, a few lucky kids had dolls, and balls were generally part of a child's world, but the overflowing toy box wasn't a thing. That's because it hadn't yet occurred to anyone to use the power of television to advertise toys year-round.

Then one afternoon in October, 1955, the Mattel Toy Company aired a commercial for The Thunder Burp Machine Gun on an episode of the The Mickey Mouse Club.

"(T)he Thunder burp . . . according to Howard Chudacoff, a cultural historian at Brown University, was a kind of historical watershed. Almost overnight, children's play became focused, as never before, on things -- the toys themselves. 'It's interesting to me that when we talk about play today, the first thing the comes to mind are toys," says Chudacoff. "Whereas when I would think of play in the 19th century, I would think of activity rather than an object.'"

By the time I was out of diapers, the big budget marketing of toys was in full swing. I doubt there are many of us born in the second half of the 20th century who can't fondly sing a full collection of toy commercial jingles. This product, and this commercial, in many ways marks the beginning of the commercialization of childhood and the co-optation of play. 

What did children play with before toys? The same things they play with today when they are allowed to interact with the real world. I've often urged educators and parents to consider this mental experiment. Imagine you have a shiny new toy lawnmower on your playground and you set it beside a real lawnmower. Which one will the children play with? The real lawnmower, of course. That's because clever advertising and packaging might make a child beg for this toy or that, but at the end of the day, their real interests lie in the real world. It's not an accident that young children so often have more fun playing with the boxes the toys came in than they do the toys themselves.

Founder of the Dorothy Snot preschool and kindergarten in Athens, Greece, and presenter at the upcoming Teacher Tom's Play Summit, John Yiannoudis says, "What children really need is to discover the world." Indeed, they are driven to it. That's why they want to work with the tools you are working with, to help with the laundry, to get involved in the cooking. This is why their toys so often lie abandoned while they play with the vacuum cleaner or try flushing things down the toilet. They know that the real world is their future and that toys, once the newness wears off, have nothing at all to do with it. As John says, "For some reason, we took our children out of reality."

This is in part why John and his wife Daniella have created a curriculum around what he calls, "life-derived learning." 

"Life-derived learning is something very simple," says John, "Sometimes I feel that it's like I'm going back  to the 60s and 70s when I was finishing elementary school and I was going to assist my dad in his grocery store." He says that instead of separating our children from life itself and replacing it with meaningless things like, English lessons or toys, he strives to allow children to "take ownership" of their lives by putting meaningful activity at the center of their play. "(If you) let a child from early on get involved in all those magic things, they become very autonomous, very confident, very independent." John makes a very old idea new. A century ago, Maria Montessori, John Dewey, Rudolph Steiner and others were merely rediscovering wisdom about children, learning, and play that had been supplanted by Industrial Revolution (i.e., assembly line) style schooling, which systematically separates children from life rather than connecting them to it.

The great John Dewey famously wrote, "Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself." Children are not born craving toys or other abstractions. No, they are born with the natural urge to engage in the real world they find around them. It is, as John puts it, how they "take ownership of their lives."


To watch my entire interview with John, please join us at Teacher Tom's Play Summit. What if the whole world understood the power of trusting children with the freedom to play, to explore their world, to ask and answer their own questions? What if everyone respected their right to learn in their own way, on their own time? What if we remembered that children must have their childhoods and that means playing, and lots of it? Teacher Tom's Play Summit  is a free, online conference that takes place June 20-25. Click here to get your free pass to all 24 of our incredible sessions with early childhood and parenting experts and thought leaders from around the world. Every one of these people are professionals who have placed children first. You will walk away from this event transformed, informed, challenged, and inspired to create a world that respects children and sets them free to learn and grow. Together we can, as presenter Raffi sings, "Turn this world around!"

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