Saturday, April 25, 2009

go out and play

i spent today at a conference on the importance of play in early education and school readiness. now i want to go back to school and force the children to go play. NOW.

first of all, i love this conference. i've gone for three years in a row now and every time i come away with something. it brings together day care providers, preschool teachers, kindergarten teachers, principals, and policy makers to discuss important factors in getting our little ones ready for school. i love that as teachers we get to sit and discuss this with day care providers who otherwise we wouldn't really get to interact with. the message that we're all important pieces in children's lives is sent loud and clear, and the importance isn't on great lessons or progressive programs. it's about the kids we see every day.

this year's entire theme was learning through play and i have to say, i had no idea play was so important. i was always a believer in play. now i'm convinced it's the answer to all of our problems in education and that if we don't let our children play we'll have a nation of serial killers.

funny that the more we "fix" education the more we remove play. hmmmm....

the last speaker, stuart brown, whose background includes everything from internal medicine, psychiatry, and clinical research, spoke to us about the neurological implications of play. what stuck with me the most, and what i don't think i'll lose anytime soon, is that when he did a study on common factors in murderers in texas prisons. he found that the most dominant common factor was that all the murderers had play deprivation in their childhoods, or, as he so nicely put it, "a systematic repression of play behavior".

which, after everything we'd already heard about the brain and play throughout the day, made complete sense.

i'm not sure i can do the conference justice here, but i have so much i want to reflect on. here are the important pieces i took away:

-play is a fundamental part of human nature (and not just human nature, but also in animals)
-free play is an essential piece in early brain mapping
-play lights up the brain more than anything else
-an important part of play is risk taking- it teaches us about learning limits
-rough and tumble play is also essential (when rats are denied rough and tumble play they do not learn how to differentiate between a friend and enemy and are unable to mate!!)
-no mater how smart a person is, and how good their credentials are, if they are not a "tinkerer" or play with their hands, they are not good at problem solving at an executive level.
-pretend play allows the child to develop the ability to create their own internal narrative, which is essentially the inner self.
-when children learn to read play signals in others they are developing the ability to read others, which allows them to truly trust another person.
-students who participate in "drill and kill" activities are more aggressive.
-play allows a child to be in control of their learning, their environment, their lives.

i could write more and more but i think i'm over flowing my own brain at the moment.

but my thoughts on it all:
-if children who have been able to develop their cognitive skills through play are stronger with symbolic relationships, problem solving, and understanding story sequence, plot development, and character development- then why are we beating our heads against the wall using other methods to teach kids these skills in ways that aren't as natural as play?

-so many of my kindergarten and first grade kiddos have anger issues that seep back to control. if play is a chance for kids to be in control, would letting them have more free play, or even guided play where we respond to their prompts, give them the control they are so desperately seeking? (and we are so desperately trying to "give them" through silly behavior plans?

-i think one of the reasons we don't see play more is that it can't be controlled as much as work sheets, graphic organizers, and literature discussions. it can be messy, loud, and unstructured. and it's harder on us because we have to follow the kids' lead. we aren't bringing them our lesson plans and asking them to listen to us- we're listening to them and then thinking very quickly about how to guide their play with our objectives. one speaker said, "teachers must be sharp, keen, and purposely observant". none of that is easy.
another reason we don't see much play is that it just isn't as measurable (again, it doesn't let the grown ups have control)

it is amazing to hear about the brain research and how science has proven the importance of play- but to still know that there are schools out there that don't have recess and kindergarten classrooms without free play times.

as a first grade teacher i still had "free choice". it was my favorite part of the day, but certainly not because it was easy on me. i kept anecdotal notes on what my kids were doing and used those notes to plan guided play for the next day. by the time we got to measurement my kids had already used learned how to use rulers through whatever art project they'd taken on (one year was making my wedding dress with pink construction paper. yes, they wanted me to be barbie). they made houses for stuffed animals, wrote plays, played probability games, planted a garden, or read books to their animals. (i got this idea from fred jones' tools for teaching book- he calls it preferential activity time to make it sound more academic than "play")
but it was messy and i was always embarrassed with other staff members walked in and saw what was happening. i know i looked like i didn't have any control. but i did. in fact, in a lot of ways i had more control than i would have if we were still doing a lesson.

a group of us at school have been reading the book mindset about how people who believe intelligence is not fixed are more successful. yesterday afternoon we got together to talk about how we could impart this knowledge on our kids. (one way is to change our teacher language from "you're so smart!" to, "wow, you worked SO hard!")
all i could think about today was how letting children play more teaches them these skills. they learn the problem solving skills we're trying to teach. they learn to develop a model in their head and then make a plan to make it a reality (like playing with legos). they learn to fail, and how to recover from failure, and that it is possible to recover from failure.

and of course, the whole day i kept thinking about how this all connects to thinkblocks (which i am becoming more and more obsessed with!)

it kills me that we have this knowledge about how the brain develops through play, and we have research about how play supports skills like creativity, critical thinking, problem solving, teamwork, initiative, and self-direction, and how we still are not using it in our schools. the gap between what we know and what we do is so wide and continues to get wider.

when i was visiting china i volunteered in a school. classes were 45 minutes long and when class was over the students had a 15 minute break. they had no playground equipment, their "playground" was a field of dirt, and there was no adult supervision but they played their own organized games, laughed, chased each other, and then returned on time to the same classroom they had just left.

so perhaps it's not the long school days and the rigorous curriculum that's pushing them ahead of us globally. maybe it's the multiple breaks during the day that allow for that uninhibited free play.



Jenny said...

At NCTM today Arne Duncan, in response to a question, mentioned that in Finland (at least he thought he meant Finland)students go outside for 15 minutes every hour. He was responding to a question about how we support the whole child rather than just the specific academic subjects. It's an interesting idea.

Anonymous said...

Here's a way to share Stuart Brown via TED - I shared his talk with my staff colleagues last month:

He clarified after the conference that the adults with significant childhood abuse and deprivation (the ones he studied)could have become something else with greater amounts of playful experiences - and it didn't sound like it had to be a huge dose to overcompensate-

Snippety Gibbet said...

This may be a duplicate comment. My computer just hiccuped and I'm not sure where my comment went.

I dearly love the approach of Reggio Emilia. The idea of play and where that play leads a child seems to be the most compelling way to teach little ones.

One of my favorite ed bloggers is a homeschooler. She used to run a Montesori type school, but now focuses on her own children. They explore, research, journal, draw, and travel as part of their education. A lot of what her kids do feels like play, but has a deeper value than what one might assume on the surface . I would absolutely thrive in an environment such as that.


Anonymous said...

I love that you looked up Fred Jones. What do you think?

Sarah said...

I wish more school principals would go to a conference like this before they decided to take away our recesses!