Archive for the ‘Play’ Category

New York Times

More than 150 years ago, Charles Dickens published “Hard Times,” a novel centered around the students of an English schoolmaster named Thomas Gradgrind, who had no use for play or any sort of imaginative pursuit. For Gradgrind, if something did not demonstrably add to the productive capacity of the nation and could not be justified with facts and statistics, it had no place in a child’s education.

Dickens invented Gradgrind (and introduced him in a chapter entitled “Murdering the Innocents”) to dramatize what he saw as the soullessness of utilitarianism, a school of thought prevalent in England during the Industrial Revolution that emphasized rational pursuits and quantitative measures over all else.

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“In my early teaching years I was in the wrong forest. I paid scant attention to the play and did not hear the stories.” (p. 5)

Vivian Paley taught preschool children for 37 years, much of that time at the University of Chicago’s Laboratory Schools. She is the only Kindergarten teacher to ever receive one of the MacArthur “genius” grants. In addition to teaching, Paley has written more than 10 books about life in the classroom. The books are:

* White Teacher
* Wally’s Stories
* Boys and Girls: Superheroes in the Doll Corner
* Mollie is Three
* Bad Guys Don’t Have Birthdays
* The Boy Who Would Be A Helicopter
* You Can’t Say You Can’t Play
* Kwanzaa and Me: A Teacher’s Story
* The Girl With the Brown Crayon
* The Kindness of Children
* In Mrs. Tulley’s Room: A Child-Care Portrait

She writes and thinks….

“When I was a new teacher, it was the principals approval I sought. I was afraid of the children.”

“Those of us presume to ‘teach’ must not imagine that we know how each student begins to learn.”

“Teachers announce it, children respond to it…I really think that punishing children for what they have not yet learned, about social behavior or anything else, is completely counterproductive. It creates no useful dialogue.”

“Having given up the time out chair, I needed to replace it with a consistent and positive teaching strategy…I must not do to a child that which I would not have done to me. As my teaching errors have not been punishable by isolation, humiliation, and denial of activity, I would not impose these sentences on children.”

“The children like to dramatize books and fairy tales but are not dismayed if there is time only to read them. Acting them out is better, but listening is usually enough. They feel quite differently about their own stories.”

“Play is the universal learning medium.”

“Play and its necessary core of storytelling are the primary realities in the preschool and kindergarten.”

“There is a tendency to look upon the noisy repetitious fantasies of children as non-educational, but helicopters and kittens and superhero capes and Barbie dolls are storytelling aids and conversational tools.”

“The children have many more safe and ingenious ways to deal with frustrations than I have.”

“Pretend…is the stage upon which any identity is possible and secret thoughts can be safely revealed.”

“The power of fantasy play to restore balance and ballast can never be overestimated.”

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My first two days of kindergarten marked my own creative and emotional silencing in school. On the first day, I boldly stepped forward, organizing the children around me to build something extraordinary out of wooden blocks. At the end of the day, my teacher took my mother aside and said something to the effect of, “What a wonderfully creative daughter you have.” My mother beamed at her middle daughter and saw  promise. The world, through my mother’s eyes, believed in me.

On the second day, my mother was called to take me home early. I had done something wrong. I don’t remember what. Probably I didn’t listen to instruction well enough. Whatever the offense, my teacher believed expelling me from my new society of playmates was just punishment for that day.

As I passed under her crisp, disappointed gaze, my new teacher summed me up. No longer would she see my evolving self or the potential of who I might become that first day. Now I was “Kimberly, the troublemaker” at home and at school. Later, my mother would retell this “cute” vignette as if it perfectly explained who I was and how she understood me. So much promise but so much trouble.

And I carried this knowing with me.

And found that my first two days of kindergarten were replayed and replayed, again and again, throughout my school years. It seemed my teachers knew me before I knew them. In a small school, few did the work of seeing me with new eyes. A summing up preceded me. Each year, my hope for chance, change, and opportunity reverted to familiar script.

Yet there were exceptions who made the difference, naturally intuitive teachers like Miss Fort, my proper first grade teacher, who collected her hair in a net and wore pleated skirts, starched button up shirts, and ribbon bowties. Miss Fort was a firm but kindly presence for incoming first graders. She held my attention with a gaze that steeled me in place. Strict but never punishing, never did I feel she didn’t “see me.” Her eyes saw a child with expressive energy born of natural intelligence, not a lack thereof. Miss Fort was a great gift to my six-year-old self. Her wordless communiqués were an electrical current of affirmation.

My second grade teacher, though, grabbed my ear with her knife like fingers and yanked me into the coatroom where she’d whack my knuckles with the wooden ruler she kept on her desk. My third grade teacher sent me to the hallway to stand facing the wall. I would break free by inventing minor rebellions or escape inside private imaginative worlds. I was eight and had begun to see school as an emotional desert where no shade existed and water was illusion. Once I snuck into the unoccupied principal’s office to use the school’s intercom. Another time I lazily pulled the fire alarm when walking down the hallway. I was fighting the injustice of invisibility.

A more constructive way I expressed my building tension was through my imagination and creative play. During recess, I played under a great elm tree whose roots were an island of sweet refuge circled by a sea of black asphalt a few feet away. Under this tree my imagination was free. Each crevice carefully swept of leaves and debris, the brown earth tidy and cared for.

Lost in the doing of it, my friends faded away. Stillness settled over me as I stroked the earth with a small stick. I was the creator of this root world and it was my careful attention that made it right. This was soul therapy where the unconscious mind works the imagination’s rich soil. I could feel a dream unfolding, as I transformed chaos to order, my need for calm, order, expansion and acceptance being fully expressed in that moment under the open sky.

The bell would ring and I would not hear.

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Is childhood play the forerunner to adolescent play?

Is childhood play a neurological paving of the way to adolescent identity formation? Is human imagination a primal drive to see ones self and ones world in new ways?

What is the longitudinal purpose of childhood play and how is it linked to adolescent identity formation?

When children play, they surrender themselves to imagination, improvisation, creativity and experience transformation, the ability to change object and self into new ways of being.

In childhood, I tended the thick roots of a great oak tree for the little family of fallen acorn people I took care of. I believed I was a great dancer, a masterful teacher, a brave lion tamer, a riveting storyteller. I could fly. I had superhero abilities. My ability to transform myself and change objects like acorns into people was learned and practiced as a child. I believed, loved and trusted my imagination. Imagining new ways of being – transformation – was natural and comfortable and I carry that trust in self transformation in me to this day.

Susan, the little girl, in the 1940’s movie “Miracle on 34th Street” didn’t believe in Santa Claus. She was raised to reject imagination and the magic of transformation. As a result, her childhood was literal and matter of fact. Logical. Stripped of wonder. I wonder about children not steeped in imaginary play, practicing, like wizards, the art of transforming themselves and the things of their world into other objects of play.  Are children with rich, satisfying childhood play experiences more successful, more comfortable, more at ease, more mind-flexible, when it comes to transforming themselves during adolescence?

Adolescent identity work falls along the same developmental continuum as childhood play. Children experience transformation to make sense of their outer world; adolescents experience self-transformation to make sense of their inner world.

Is rich childhood play an essential developmental precursor to developing the creative part of the brain necessary for the work of adolescent identity formation?

Childhood play readies the new adolescent to transform self. Because of and through play, they have learned, practiced and experienced transformation as children. Now, as adolescents, they naturally transfer that skill to the serious work of transforming self.

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