Play is the Work of Children

Two first graders come tearing down the hall and run into their teacher.
“Children, what was the head master just talking about today? Remember, no running in the halls.”
“But Mrs. James, we weren’t running, we’re horses.” At that, they galloped off into the yard.

This anecdote (much abbreviated and paraphrased here), comes from a talk by Michael Armstrong, author and former teaching principal, at this year’s North Dakota Study Group meeting of progressive educators. He used it to illustrate the essential aspect of playing with language. We learn language by playing with language. It is language that allows humans to be creative beings.

The title of this column is attributed to Friedrich Froebel (1782–1852), the German philosopher, and coiner of the term kindergarten, which literally mean child’s garden. Over the last couple hundred years, other philosophers, psychologists and educators have come to the same conclusion. These range from theoretical giants such as Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky and John Dewey to modern practitioners and thinkers such as Benjamin Spock, Vivian Paley, Eleanor Duckworth, Deborah Meier, and Michael Armstrong, listing just the tip of the iceberg.

What these and many other educators and psychologists have discovered is that play is an, maybe the, essential manner in which humans learn. In fact not only humans, but many mammals learn the important skills they will need for adult survival though play, as anyone who has watched kittens or puppies knows.

Piaget, one of the first to empirically study how children use play to learn, demonstrated that children use play to discover how the world around them works, to develop their schema, and organize the structure of their thinking. It is through such play that children develop intellectually. Piaget demonstrated that while with didactic teaching we can get students to parrot back scientific or logical principles, such rote learning does little to really help individuals internalize and use such rules and theories. According to his research, only when we can play and experience these things for ourselves, test out theories of how the world works, can we make these ideas our own and apply the principles appropriately in real world situations.

Vygotsky saw imaginative play as important beyond the logical-mathematical realm that Piaget focused on. Through his research, Vygotsky demonstrated that through play and imagination children try out new roles. They imitate, creatively, the roles they see of those who are older than them, the adults around them. They develop socially and culturally through this process. In all realms, through play children can go above their current level of being and development. Like an actor, play frees children to act in ways they may not yet be able to do outside of play. Play creates a safe place to task risks, try out new ideas, and take on new roles.

Benjamin Spock, the famous child psychologist of the 1960s, in reaction to rigid and controlling theories of child rearing that were popular at the time, advocated for the importance of play in children’s lives. He explained that children do not engage in play because it is easy, but precisely because it offers meaningful challenges. Human being like to be challenged and solve problems. Otherwise they get bored. It is through such challenges that children learn, learn at just the level that is appropriate to their particular level and skill, what Vygotsky would call, their Zone of Proximal Development.

Many other practicing educators have described the power of play in educational settings, such as long time elementary teacher and author, Vivian Paley, in her book A Child’s Work: The Importance of Fantasy Play (excerpt), Eleanor Duckworth (who worked with Piaget and Inhelder) in The Having of Wonderful Ideas, Michael Armstrong in Closely Observed Children and Elizabeth Jones and Gretchen Reynolds in The Play’s the Thing: Teachers’ Roles in Children’s Play, to name just a few. When you read these books, you see the joy and excitement that can fill classrooms when play takes a center stage. You see that rather than making school less “rigorous,” play actually makes them a more challenging and intellectually demanding place.

Deborah Meier has developed many schools based on the theory of play as central to learning. Meier’s small public schools of choice serve predominantly low-income minority students. Her work has documented how, when an entire school is designed with the importance of play as central, both in the literal sense of blocks and doll centers for young children, and the intellectual aspect of playing with ideas and theories for people of all ages (including the teachers and other adults) the levels of success for these students skyrockets.

As in the first anecdote, through playing with language, children not only have fun (though the importance of, and their right to, have fun should not be underestimated. Remember, this country was founded on the idea that we have the unalienable right of the pursuit of happiness), but they learn to frame their reality. The anecdote with which I started, in a charming way, illustrates how playing with language is a political tool—we use language to frame an issue. By defining themselves as horses, they find a way of framing reality where they are not breaking the rules—the rules apply to kids, not horses, and horses gallop, not run. These children are becoming powerful users of language, which we claim is a major purpose of education.

Play is a form of practice. But it is not rote practice. It is intellectual practice. Through play children are, in Piagetan terms, developing the schema of how the world works. Through play children have the freedom to discover how materials can be used, the limits and possibilities of those materials. Through play, in Vygotskian terms, children create a low-risk setting to move to the next level in their Zone of Proximal Development intellectually and socially. Through play comes discovery and invention. Through play comes power over language.

Despite all the evidence built up over several centuries, both theoretical and empirical, on the importance and power of play, it appears to be disappearing from the lives of children, especially their school lives, a place where they are compelled to spend 6 hours a day, 180 days a year.

This month, I observed one of my student teachers teach to a class of low-income Latino second graders. She did an hour and a half Reading First language arts lesson (a curriculum that is mandated in Program Improvement schools), following the lesson plan faithfully. The children responded dutifully and more or less competently to the assignments. Not once during that lesson were the children allowed to, much less expected to, use their imagination, to answer any question that did not have one right answer, nor did it allow them to explicitly use any experiences they might have had outside of school.

This experience is not the exception, but rather becoming the rule in schools serving low-income students. If you go into most public schools today, you will see that even in kindergarten (a term which is fast becoming an oxymoron), children spend most of their time sitting in seats filling in worksheets. When not doing worksheets they are engaged in other teacher directed activities. There is almost no time for children to choose their own activities or to freely explore materials. Where there is time to play, it is usually for those who finish their worksheets early, as a way to keep them busy.

Preschools, despite several recent large studies that show that children who attend developmentally oriented preschools outperform those in academically oriented preschools in later years (for more detail on this, read my March 2007 column), are more and more looking like the “traditional” first grades of my childhood—children spending their time doing teacher directed work sitting in chairs. Well-to-do parents are being convinced that only by engaging earlier and earlier in such “academic” work can their children win the race to get into the best schools later in life. Low-income parents are being told that only through such early preparation will their children have the skills that are required for entering kindergarten (when did we start expecting children to enter kindergarten with academic skills?).

There is also evidence that children have less opportunities and experiences engaging in imaginative play outside of school. Homework expectations are rising. Children, especially those of the middle and upper classes, spend more time than ever before in organized structured activities, such as sports, ballet lessons, or music lessons. While these activities are undoubtedly good for children’s development in many ways, they do not engage children in imaginative play. During the unstructured time they do have, children are spending more and more of it in front of electronic media, either television or computers. Neither television nor computer games stretch children to actively use their own imagination. At best they allow children to enter the imaginative worlds of the creators of these shows and games.

To those reading this column who are classroom teachers, I urge you to think about your own teaching. What are you doing in your classroom that allows children to use their imagination? Where can they express their own voice? What percentage of the day? Where are the spaces within the scripted curriculum that you may be mandated to use, where you can allow creativity and student voice?

To all of you, I ask, if you agree with the above critique, what are you doing to change the current system under No Child Left Behind that is driving out much of the space for imaginative work in schools? Preparing students to do well in high stakes standardized testing is often the reason teachers are told they may not allow creative lessons. The only national organization that is actively working to oppose the misuse of such tests for high stakes decisions is FairTest, working on a shoestring budget against the multimillion dollar budgets of the test publishers. At a minimum you can let your elected representative know.

One organization that is currently specifically working on saving the space for play in children’s lives is the Alliance for Childhood. Their site provides articles and links for more information and resources about play in children’s lives.

If you want to read some wonderful books on how to do such curriculum, you could start with any of the following books, some of which were mentioned above:

• Vivian Paley, A Child’s Work: The Importance of Fantasy Play
• Eleanor Duckworth, The Having of Wonderful Ideas
• Michael Armstrong, Closely Observed Children
• Elizabeth Jones and Gretchen Reynolds, The Play’s the Thing: Teachers’ Roles in Children’s Play

A useful teaching video is:
• Play, a Vygotskian Approach, by Elena Bodrova; Deborah Leong; John Davidson; Frances Davidson (Davidson Films).

For more scholarly academic work on the theory and evidence you might start with:
• Bodrova, E., & Leong, D. J. (1996). Tools of the mind: The Vygotskian approach to early childhood education: Merrill.
• Vygotsky, L. S., & Cole, M. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Harvard University Press.

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