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Play is the Stuff

September 28, 2009

It’s fall on the East coast.  Cooler. Wetter. Darker.  Finally, the natural, physical signals that autumn is here.  Inside classrooms, we feel the same physical signs that autumn is in full swing.  The initial “honeymoon” has worn off, we are falling into routines, establishing relationships and digging into the real work of learning.  We barely have 20 days of school under our belts, the sense one gets in many classrooms at our school is that children and adults are known, routines and expectations are clearly understood, and there is a sense of joy in our work and play.  Several times I day, I take a mental break from the cognitive learning and general classroom management and remember a quote from David Elkind:

“Learning teaches us what is known, play makes it possible for new things to be learned. There are many concepts and skills that can only be learned through play.”

Elkind’s research out of Tufts University and his research (numerous articles and books on child development and play) have shaped the way many of us think of children, learning and play.  Indeed, throughout our lives there is much to learn – facts, figures, routines, objectives.  But it is through play that we each grow through analyzing and applying what we know and even evaluate and creating new information.  These last four stages signify higher order thinking which enables children truly make sense of their world and establish an approach to learning and life which will serve them well for years to come.  Play is the “stuff” of which deeper learning is constructed in early childhood and the “stuff” that keeps us enjoying life for years to come.

We’ve seen the real and perceived diminish of play over the past several years in schools, in neighborhood and our own homes.   A host of social, economic and pragmatic reasons have been sited for scaling back on recess and play in schools and in family life, but the tugs to “work” can  excise play from our repertoire.   Decades of research has shown that play is crucial to physical, intellectual, and social-emotional development at all ages.   This is especially true of the purest form of play: the unstructured, self-motivated, imaginative, independent kind, where children initiate their own games and even invent their own rules.  I love watching this in my own classroom.  Two three-years spent 4 consecutive days playing mothering and child, with various scenes involving events familiar to them – resting, riding in the car, going to dance, cleaning up.  Day after day, they resumed these roles – verbalizing directions, assuming roles, dressing and moving like they were characters in Broadway play which included drama, conflict and resolution.  Several days later, one of the children chose to explore play dough. Her partner initially appeared disappointed, but then forged ahead to play both roles herself.  As adults, we giggled, took notes to record the dialogue and marveled at the complex learning which helped these two children understand leader/follower roles, better understand the relationship between parent and child,  enjoy assuming an “adult” role, expand their verbal skills and build a more interdependent relationship with each other.   In another part of our room, two children were using pretend props to create a video game which involved popular characters from cartoon and movies.  While this form of play allowed players to comprehend and application what they have viewed, their imaginations were constrained by the parameters other creative minds (the movie creators, producers, etc.) and their play was fairly limited.  Their play also flirted with destruction and included fighting and weapons, a sure sign that redirection from an adult was required.  With simple reminders to take care of materials and live within the school’s stand to have a safe and friendly environment, their choice in play moved to animals hunting in the wild with the computers and cameras being used to film for a tv show.

family goes to ballet

So while learning the social norms of school and age appropriate skill sets and information are essential at any level, I am reminded that all children – indeed, all of us — also need time to play.  Not just organized sports or classes, but real play where the primary goal is pleasure.  James Taylor sings about “enjoying the passage of time…” Often in that place of enjoyment, we are learning and growing in ways we don’t recognize right away.  Children can analyze their world and make sense of things through their play, stretch their imaginations, vocabulary and social skills through play.  The “stuff” and lessons of play are layered inside and retrieved for more play, execution of a task, or in new learning.  It’s a wondrous and essential part of childhood that shouldn’t be pushed aside by schedules, pressure to perform in later grades or other external factors, but rather deliberately encouraged and met with whole-hearted  engagement.

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