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Certified PreK-6. Masters in Child Development. Advocate for play, teacher & children choice, & the family's voice. Believe in volunteering as social justice.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Interrupting Adult

I spent the morning observing children's interactions at the local aquarium. The aquarium invites a great amount of dialogue simply by it's exciting underwater inhabitants. What it also offers is a rich setting in which to engage in fantasy play. In particular there is an area designed like a campsite with a canoe and life jackets and a tent complete with a camping stove and food. What a wonderful invitation for play! (There's also a lovely area where children can explore a yellow submarine and dress up like penguins.)

As I was watching children from toddlerhood to early primary play in the campsite I noticed a disturbing trend. The children would be completely engaged in play and I would hear shouts of "let's sleep in the tent!" or "oh no, a big wave is coming, get your life jacket!". Children from different families would be engaged in an elaborate dialogue and the plot would just begin to thicken when suddenly the children were yanked back into reality by the adults.

Over and over again I witnessed the interrupting adult. In their haste to adhere to a perceived need to stick to a schedule of fun and see everything in the aquarium(a huge impossibility to be honest), the well intentioned adult took away the child's fantasy play. I saw this happen so many times today that I lost count. While the children were perfectly ready and content to dive into a fantasy world, the adults grew impatient and asserted their power of the children by ending their explorations.

I worry that as professionals who work with children that we are guilty of the same thing. We are also guilty of being the interrupting adult. How many times do we stop a child's fantasy play in order to move on to a different aspect of the day that we have decided is more important? How many adventures have we ended in our impatience and desire to move on? I know that this syndrome is the result of a larger societal push to "educate educate educate", but as Vivian Paley so eloquently describes, fantasy play is the work of the children.

Rather than becoming play interrupters, we should be play protectors. After all, isn't that where the learning truly happens?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

But I Am Writing

I've always been an advocate for playful and meaningful literacy learning. In a community that values reading and writing as necessary skills for success and also as forms of entertainment and pleasure, it never ceases to amaze me that learning standards are consistently used as a case for rote literacy rather than authentic literacy. (Side note, I know many amazing teachers who teach with authenticity, it's not their children I'm concerned about. It's the larger societal push for standards to the point of removing meaning from what a child is doing.) As I've been spending the past few months digging deeper into language development of young children, my concern is ever increasing.

Research tells us that children construct their learning and that language is no different. Children are very capable of using the world and people around them as tools for building their understanding. So for a child who passionately reads picture books and writes on whatever they can get a hold off, going to school and being told that now they are going to learn to read and write is rather ludicrous. They are already reading and writing! School is in place to help children continue to construct their understanding, not to start from scratch.

The three year old often watches me while I do work for grad school. He constantly sees me reading and writing notes. Yesterday he worked beside me as I read and this is what he wrote. He wrote from left to right, highlighted the important part of his writing, and even drew an arrow to show him a very important piece. This is writing. And excellent writing at that.

This, on the other hand, is not writing. This is a rote practice activity in which his preschool teachers want him to correctly form the letter symbol. This has no meaning to him. When I asked him what he wrote he said, "nothing, it's just some letters". He's right of course, the note that he wrote was full of meaning and written for a purpose, this worksheet was not.

In our haste to conform to standards we often forget the child. We forget that they construct their knowledge based on the authentic "whole". It's important to know letters, but it's more important to know them in a real and meaningful way.

Why Not?

The other day I stepped away to help the three year old move something and this is what I saw when I turned around.

The one year old had decided that today was going to be the day that he conquered the stairs. No longer was he going to wait for me to pick him up and carry him upstairs. What if something exciting was happening up there and he missed it because I didn't realize that it was absolutely necessary to go up?

He was a good 4 stairs up and it was my first instinct to pick him up. But I stopped and grabbed my camera instead. This was not something to stop. This was a moment in which he had decided that he was going to go for it. And shouldn't I respect that determination? The little one didn't stop to think "why not?", he tried something new not knowing what would happen.

To me this is one of the most basic principles for learning. The ability to think, "why not?" and to try the impossible. After all, every thing is at some point an unknown possibility. Our children don't start school knowing how to read or do many things. What they do know is how to play and how to use that play to conquer the impossible.

It is our role as adults to encourage that very play that is so endangered in many of our schools. For it is this play that will open their minds to the "why not?".

Monday, February 13, 2012

A Different Way of Thought

The other day while I was volunteering at a local art studio I had one of our regular families come in to create with us. This particular family has an 8 year old girl and a 3 year old boy. While the girl loves art play and will spend the entire hour totally engaged with the materials, the boy isn't usually too interested. He generally spends the hour wondering the studio trailed by his mother or playing in the sand box. The sand box provides him with the sensory play he craves.

On this particular day the art educator had decided to not open the sand table and instead place out a variety of wooden pieces. The boy's mother had that look of panic that parents get when they think that their child is going to meltdown. Rather than have the family decide to leave I showed the boy the boxes of wood and demonstrated how I enjoyed feeling the different textures found on the pieces. I left the mother and boy as I went to see how the other famines were doing with the art materials.

When I came back this is what I found. The boy had taken the pieces and created this elaborate structure and was trying to maneuver a ball through it. He had engaged in creative play much to his mother's surprise!

What she had worried was going to be a disaster turned into an amazing chance for the boy to discover a new type of play.

And that is the wonder of play.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

A Random Act of Play

I'm always on the lookout for playful acts.  I believe that the art of play can be found anywhere, often in the most surprising ways.  As I walked to work (February in the midwest!) the other day I found this complex scene drawn on the sidewalk.  The children who live here had obviously taken advantage of our unusually not snowy winter to draw an elaborate track on the sidewalk.  If you look closely you will spot railroad tracks, a gas station, and a stop sign interwoven in the drawing.  On the steps of the house I spotted a basket of cars and trains and on the lawn two small bikes.  It became obvious to me that not only did the children take the time to engage in this creative play, but that they were also using their creation to engage in dramatic play as well.

In an era where child's play is often being called into questions by those who do not truly understand how children learn and children are over scheduled in extracurricular activities, it's refreshing to spot such an obvious act of play right in the neighborhood.