Friday, January 22, 2010

School as a Place to Play

There's a great article on the Empowered by Play website () regarding the state of recess and the absence of play even in the lowest of primary grades. Not the games that teach to the test, but real play where children are allowed to think for themselves, interact with others and which generally supports their creativity, curiosity and imagination. In short, the sort of learning which helps people excel at living and in life.

I found myself thinking of my morning. Kiddo and I had spent an hour visiting my dear friend Michele's preschool, The Garden's Noise. We've applied for Kiddo to go there next year and I'm looking forward to this. It would be great fun for him and such a blessing to me to know he was in such a great space while I was working.

If you think I'm nuts to pay to send my son to preschool, let me explain: many preschool teachers do not always enjoy having their own children in their class. The children want their parent to be their parent, not everyone's teacher. I'm sure my son feels a bit demoted during school sometimes; there are moments when other children need my attention and I hate to admit it, but I am rather pragmatic about this. However, it does not make this Mama feel all that good that she's pragmatic about it. When we have home time and something upsets him, even some invisible thing, I have more available time to soothe him and get him reengaged before I need to go off and do something else. When he's feeling mischievous, I have the time to be patient. Yet, at school, when he decides to take off his socks as the other children are getting their boots on, it's just annoying and holds things up. While it hasn't been a huge problem, I don't want things to continue as they are now. I like being back to work and would enjoy it more if I could just wear the one "teacher" hat.

And so we went to visit this morning. Their Morning Gathering was wonderful; the children sang with rhythm sticks, watching each other and following along as each child took their turn leading, keeping the beat in some inventive way. Some waved the sticks like antennae on the tops of their heads; others pushed them back and forth on the floor and some clacked or rubbed the sticks together. "Here we go round the Mulberry Bush" became a song of days of the week and the chores that accompanied them. Kiddo was a bit overwhelmed by the complexity of the rhythm activity, and so he looked around, exploring the space and quickly honing in on the drums and musical instruments. Then he was grabbed up to join the circle of skipping feet round the mulberry bush. He seemed willing enough to follow the teacher's lead and took her hand.

I won't go into all the details of his morning, but a few moments stood out to me. In the art room a group of children were gathered around the table, awaiting the teacher. She bestowed upon them enormous chunks of clay---more than a child could ever think of using, satisfyingly abundant---and an array of tools. The discussions that followed became a story about a treasure box and some jewels. What did jewels look like? What sorts of shapes were they? (This hearkened back to the Morning Gathering, where a few everyday objects were bordered with hazelnuts and walnuts: the teacher took the objects away and their silhouettes could be identified.) Later, a group of children were gathered. It had started with three, who were creating a story with playstands, nuts, wooden houses, trees peeled of their bark to look like mountains and wooden play figures. These children called others over "for the show". The children lined the chairs up and asked the other children playing nearby to be quieter(which they were) and then launched into a hilarious retelling of the Stone Soup story. Mountains carefully visited the audience members, making them laugh. Many parts of the story were explored nearly verbatim while others allowed room for some very creative--and collective--improvisation. The play grew and grew, off the stage, into laps, tables and chairs being moved back and then, without any real conflict, the group dissipated and the original three were given friendly directions not to 'clean up' but to "make it beautiful". The children already had such a degree of investment that is seemed to go seamlessly.

We ended our time outdoors visiting the chickens to collect an egg to take home. Kiddo ate it for his lunch, completely focused on being home and not at all interested in discussing his morning. Just visiting, witnessing the harmony of the group and the language and ideas in the stories the children were sharing, it was obvious that the children were learning plenty.

Play-based preschool is totally where it's at!*




Just a note:

*Play does not have to be about chaos or being aimless. I think that some adults take a dim view of play-based preschools because all this learnlearnlearn is crammed down our throats. Years ago all those reports came out about the brain's potential in the first three years and it's made a lot of people nervous. Nothing about human development changed after these reports arrived, we just got really freaked out and started doing the bizarre things that freaked out people do. If you don't believe me, consider the fact that there are tapes to play to your unborn child to 'teach them how to read'. You would have thought that these reports somehow made us dumber, because we act as if forgot what childhood was supposed to be about. Given the scope of history, the idea of childhood as a separate state of life from adulthood is actually a relatively recent construct, a social progress which protects children from being exploited in the worst ways. We as human beings fought for the right of children to be children, and there's nothing more important to young children than play. At least, there shouldn't be.

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