Work or Play?
If you’re on Facebook or read the newspaper or have or teach children, you have probably witnessed at least some of the huge volume of literature that has been published on the science of play. You may, as I have, wondered if your own child is getting what they need from their school experience, whether that experience is at home or in a preschool or public or private K-12. Recently I spoke to a parent whose children are in a top-notch private school about her fears that her children are not getting the social experiences they would get in a public school. One of my good friends just had to move her son to a new preschool because the school she was at was not a good fit for her child.
At a conference recently, I heard child development expert Bev Bos tell a story about one of the parents at her school. This parent came to school and Bev could tell she was not feeling well emotionally. When she asked what was wrong, the woman responded.
Bev I was on the phone with a dear friend of mine who just put her child into a new preschool. She was so excited because her child had come home clean the day before. When I heard it I literally burst into tears. How do I say to my friend that any preschool where you come home clean is a place where you’re probably not learning what you need to learn at that age? Her daughter is 2.
When I heard this story, it brought tears to my eyes. Like Erik Erikson, I believe that children need concrete physical experiences of the world in order to know themselves and the world. If they do not get these experiences, they do not have the information they need to have to build abstract thoughts and concepts like empathy into their minds and lives. Preschoolers especially need the opportunity to explore things to the limits of their interest. They need to build up and knock down and build again and knock down again a million times until they really understand in their bones what it is to build and what it is to knock down. As parents who are busy and distracted and trying to remember the big picture, it may be hard to remember this essential piece of development. Or we might not ever have thought about how necessary and slow and frustrating this can be for the person who cleans up all the things thrown and knocked down until we are cleaning play dough off the walls for the 27th time and starting to think about how one (or two, in my case) 2 foot tall child could possibly have gotten some of it on the ceiling fan.
(I must digress for just a moment here. No one told me, before I became a parent, that it is mostly about feeding and cleaning. They mentioned the joy and how fulfilling it is and how amazing it is to be a witness to first words and crawling and walking and all of that stuff, but seriously I feel like SOMEONE could have mentioned the sheer volume of food I would have to make and poop I would have to clean up. But this post is mostly not about that, so I will end my digression here and maybe continue it in another blog post at another time.)
This can lead to frustration at the sheer volume of time, not to mention mess, it takes for a child to experience the world. In a world of rushing and commutes and kindergarten readiness and college preparedness, we try to try to cut corners on that time and try to get the most ‘quality’ learning experiences in the least quantity of time. And every parent has wondered at some point “is my child getting what they need to be successful?” I think that this is a great question, if success (as my new friend Dara pointed out) means to live a happy and useful life. And successful life, to me, is one that includes a lot of play. Like artist and scientist Desmond Morris, I believe that even adult play “is what gives us all our greatest achievements-art, literature, poetry, theatre, music and scientific research.” So if you want the next Einstein, let them play. Play is our greatest work.
I teach classes that focus on peace through the arts. Because children learn through play and movement, it’s a wonderful process in and of itself and as a tool to teach empathy and compassion and explore concepts of justice and equity and fairness. In my classes and camps I foster a sense of playful exploration, a space where everyone is included in the game.
It’s a little weird, really, to be someone who teaches classes that I don’t think children really need.
Let me clarify.
It’s not that I don’t think my work is important and valuable. Teaching movement and helping children become experts in their own bodies is extremely important work. But I don’t think that classes are the necessary vehicle for this learning. I think the learning would be better served by living in large community groups with lots of adults and a few children. In my perfect world, all of these people, adults and children alike, would be dancing and singing and eating and talking together on a daily basis. Learning would come through observation of adults and mimicry and play. Children would have lots of time to practice becoming experts in the world and culture around them.
Instead, most of us live in houses with at most one other adult. We are often away from our children for much of their waking hours, and they spend their time in places with lovely people who are trapped in the backwards ratio of 12-30 kids per one adult (I think that a 12 adult to 1 child ratio is the most sensible.) So I teach classes to make sure that this processed-based learning happens. I encourage and support parents to join in whenever and wherever possible. I do my best to love and support the teachers I come into contact with, so that they are better able to play and work with the children in their care.
As a parent, I want my children to get everything they need to be happy and fulfilled now as well as the foundation for a successful and happy adulthood. As a teacher I work hard to make sure that I am knowledgeable about the latest research into play and how the brain works and what happens when for children. In my classes, I am always observing the children for signs that they are feeling and being successful, and constantly responding to their needs and making curriculum more challenging or interesting or accommodating, as the need may be. And as a scientist and expert practitioner in child development I am always looking to remain current on the latest studies about what each of us needs to be happily and usefully whole. And in thinking about how to give your own children the tools to be successful, I would recommend always, whenever possible, choosing play and connection.