Tuesday, June 04, 2024

Play is Justice. Play is Liberation

I didn’t start out my adult life as a teacher. I have a degree in journalism with a minor in English. I’ve been a junior business executive, a freelance writer, and a baseball coach. It wasn’t until I was close to 40-years-old that I found myself with my own preschool classroom full of 3-5 year olds.

I didn’t know much that first year, but one thing I did know was that I didn’t want to spend my days bossing kids around. So I decided that, in the spirit of the grand experiment of democracy, these children were going to make their own rules.

So, on that first day of class, we started in an official state of anarchy.

And sure enough, within the first 15 minutes of class, a child complained to me: “I was playing with that doll and she took it from me.” In a standard school, I would have had to trundle over to the offending party and, in the role of cop, say something like, “No taking things from other people.” She then would have been faced with the choice: obey or disobey. 

If she chose to obey, then the lesson taught was compliance to rules passed down from on high.

If she chose to disobey, I would have had to insist, or resort to force, or threaten her with a punishment.

I didn’t want to be teaching either lesson. Unbeknownst to me, I was taking a stand on behalf of liberation pedagogy.

In a nutshell, liberation pedagogy flips the traditional classroom on its head. By putting the student at the center of the classroom instead of the teacher, pupils have more say in what they learn and how they learn it. As Dr. Denisha Jones puts it in our recent conversation on Teacher Tom's Podcast, "I used to talk about a child-centered curriculum, but I now say 'child-driven'."

It’s a pedagogy that is often adopted by teachers, like me, that aren’t happy with the status quo -- those who don’t believe the standard classroom setting is working for them or their students. It’s one that is designed to level the playing field by making learning both accessible and tailored to all students. 

Great stuff, but most of what's out there is focused on older children, emerging from the
works of thinkers like Brazilian educator Paulo Feire (Pedagogy of the Oppressed) and American educator and theorist bell hooks (All About Love).

My own experience as a preschool teacher taught me that the concept of libration pedagogy can and should be applied to young children. Indeed, it may be even more fertile ground because these young learners haven't yet had their innate sense of justice suppressed by an educational system that treats them like products rather than unique, free human beings. 

This is why I was so excited to talk with Dr. Jones who is currently working on a book about what libration pedagogy means for our youngest citizens . . . And surprise, surprise, it comes down to a lot of play!

When I put the children in charge of their own rules -- their own agreements with one another -- I no longer command children with obey-or-disobey edicts. When a child says, for instance, "She hit me!" my response is, "Oh no. I can tell you didn't like that."
And then to the whole group, I ask, “Does anyone want to be hit?” Of course, no one does. They shout “No!” and shake their heads.

I can say, factually, “Nobody likes that. Why don’t we all agree to not to hit other people?”

And we do all agreed so I tape a large sheet of paper to the wall, and write at the top: Agreements. Under that I write: “No hitting people.”

Often then, a child, will call out, “Unless you ask them first.”

Everyone agreed to that as well.

Then right there, in the matter of a few minutes, these free children agree, by consensus, to a dozen other things . . .

No taking things from other people.

No kicking people.

No yelling in people’s ears.

No throwing hard things at people.

No dumping water on people’s heads . . .

And to each of them, they added, “Unless you ask them first.”

We weren’t, as a society, talking about consent in the 90’s, but these free children were.

There are so many reasons that young children should be free to play. It is the way nature has designed us to develop and learn: cognitively, socially, emotionally, and physically. 

We don’t often think about play politically, but when the adults are able to step back, and, as Denisha and I discuss, become co-learners with the children, to see children as full-formed citizens with both rights and responsibilities, we see that play is equality. Play is equity. Play is justice. And, ultimately, play is liberation.

To listen to my full conversation with Denisha, click here.


I've been writing about play-based learning almost every day for the past 14 years. I've recently gone back through the 4000+ blog posts(!) I've written since 2009. Here are my 10 favorite in a nifty free download. Click here to get yours.

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