I have three sons, 8...5...3 years of age. If I were to make a pie chart of their day, the largest slice would be the category "PLAY", with sleep coming in a close second. My sons play, like to play, and need to play. Play is a critical part of their development and I attend to this need by providing supervised, but unstructured time to explore their world. Here is an example of how I view play, we have a sandbox (6 ft X 6 ft X 3 ft) with random things in it--bricks, wood, cars, rocks, ropes, tools, and access to water. I have no plan for how these things will be used, but know that my sons will create an endless number of combinations. Their imagination is immense.
So what does all of this have to do with education? Everything. Many of our schools are losing the "play" part of the day. Recess has been consumed for some students so that they can get extra time reading. And while time reading is important, it is a "rob Peter to pay Paul" situation. Often the students that lose the most play time are the ones that are struggling and see little use to school in the first place. These same students would benefit from play (exploration) and foster that sense of wonder which creates those "life-long learners" districts talk so much about.
It is a tough decision for schools to make. The community is pushing for higher test scores based on the perception that those test numbers amount to learning while at the same time, there are many people in the field of education that know play is crucial for building a strong mind and body.
I came across several articles/postings on the issue of play in schools and this got me to thinking. Children need to play. They need to explore. They need to use their imagination. Play can be on the playground; it can also be play centered around the concepts learned in class. Students need time to think through and articulate new ideas. Often this can be done through play. Scripted curriculum does not allow students to grapple with ideas, to make the ideas real, to absorb them and understand.
Tiger cubs learn to hunt by playing. Dogs learn to follow commands by playing. Are we to say that kids learn best by sitting in a chair, in a room, for many unending hours a day, placing words on a worksheet?
And many of the playgrounds that do exist have become sterile and corporate, free of any way to change the environment, to play, to use their minds and learn from mistakes. For a look at how some groups are changing the way kids play, check out Adventure Playgrounds.
How can we apply this to our classrooms? Teachers, I give you permission to have fun in the classroom, to play. That lesson on how to write dialogue in 7 different ways. That lesson can be taught and then students can play with the concepts. And when they do, as they always do in my class, they come to observe the similarities and differences among the 7 types. They make connections. They learn without me telling them and it is this type of learning that is strongest. Districts, I give you freedom to foster play in the classroom to the point where the exploration of learning resembles those photos you put on the wall in the district office. Parent, I place upon you the responsibility to make sure your child is playing.
To read more, check out the article that got me thinking, Fall Down, GO BOOM, by Morgan Clendaniel in the Sept/Oct 2008 issue of Good magazine.
Speaking of sandboxes....
Photo: Flickr wittco.gmbh