It takes courage to play in a world that does not play.

Like most posts I write…this is somewhat of a stream of consciousness post that it is not meant to be a lesson to the reader, but a reminder to the writer.

Almost exactly one year ago I did an activity that did not go as planned…

I had a team of kids who did not do anything independently.  They only did exactly what was in the directions. They waited to be led.  They only wanted to do things that had very clear predictable results.  They relied on me for all directions.  I know this can sound normal, but this group stuck to the script with an unholy allegiance that I had never seen before.

“How do you want me to do this?” This was one of the most common questions during the first couple of months of school.

It actually frightened me.  All my normal “tricks” to get them to be more independent were not working.

I decided to get rid of the tech tools for a week and simply have them produce something simple that could be displayed in the hallway.  I called it language lockers.  We were on Europe and each kid was to pick a country and simply find out what the common greeting was in their country, a few common expressions a visitor should know, and something of interest currently happening in the country.  I developed directions on how to arrange all of this so that it would fit perfectly on their lockers.  I imagined a hallway of flags and greetings and kids walking down the hallways greeting one another in foreign tongues.  I hoped that some questions would be sparked during the research and we could use them to propel us into doing something more student driven the following week.

Then it happened…a kid who finished a part early tried to tape it to his locker and we learned that all the new tape I had been given would not stick to the lockers.  Our language lockers would not happen.  I was really frustrated and walked in the next day and said something along the lines of “do what you want, just have it handed in by Thursday.”  I had a ton of arts and crafty sort of material in my class and simply pointed to them…and the kids simply stared at them.  There was such great hesitation to go picking through the piles and transform neat stacks of paint, paper, and markers into something informative and creative.  One kid got up and picked up some paper, and then someone else did.  Another student grabbed some glue, another grabbed the glitter. Everyone just kind of sat and looked at random supplies they grabbed.  They did not know what to do. There was this huge pause in the action that day.  Everyone seemed unwilling to simply play with the material.  They took out the ribbon, but then hesitated to use it.  They grabbed scissors, but hesitated before cutting anything.

They seemed afraid to play.

An then it started…paint and glitter and ribbon started flying everywhere.  They started making some of the exact same products that I have banned from my class.  I have literally said to past students “focus on your claim and evidence and not the glitter and ribbons.”  For years I actually banned “posters” as final products feeling they were not complex or…rigorous enough.  What I saw that week were kids who needed to spill glue and take 15 minutes deciding what color paper to use. Kids who somehow missed the opportunity to throw glitter and experiment with scissors.  Kids spent so much time just figuring out how to weave ribbon onto the border of their poster, lots of time figuring out the best way to make glitter stick, and how to cut foam into shapes.  I had expected them to be powerful independent beings before they had powerful play experiences that would have embedded these traits at a much earlier age.  I realized how important play was to breaking down mental barriers that allowed them to be open to doing more complex things.

One just needs to walk into any kindergarten to realize that play has been removed from schools. I think that I am seeing the result of shifting away from a play based education to that of a rigorous early academic one.  I can remember a time when I was able to give kids the time to be playful and spend 2 weeks on something that now has to be completed in two days.

“For a small child there is no division between playing and learning; between the things he or she does ‘just for fun’ and things that are ‘educational.’ The child learns while living and any part of living that is enjoyable is also play.”
Penelope Leach

Play helps kids realize that they can control their environment and manipulate it to produce creative things independent of adult instruction.  They learn to take risks.  They learn to follow a path that they have constructed.

post flick

And then the week was over.  If you looked at the final products for their face value, they were not worthy of a re-tweet or a mention in a book chapter on creative assessments in schools.  My class looked like a storm hit and things got stuck all over the wall, and ceilings, and windows.  It was hard to walk down the hallway and not walk into something sticking off of a wall or hanging from the ceiling tiles…it was awesome 🙂

And then we moved on…with all we had to cover it was a hard year to simply give them time to play.  Ever since this activity ended I have felt guilty about that.  About not being able to simply give them lots of time to play and figure things out on their own.  It takes courage to let kids play in school.  After a certain age play is no longer seen as a valuable use of kids time in school, and who would pay me a professionals salary to simply let the kids play.  I am being paid to integrate all the latest technology, being paid to utilize all the latest brain research to make sure they achieve the highest scores on standardized tests, and to follow current trends to make sure they are career ready.  I am being paid to make sure kids will be able to succeed in jobs that adults have created and consider important.  I am not being paid to let kids play.  Just imagine what would happen if they did…

They fear children playing because in their hearts they know that if humans are allowed to freely engage with the world, outdoors, unsupervised, with few toys, lots of time, and in the company of other children, they will overturn the world order in a single generation. They fear that their precariously balanced apple cart of command and control will be toppled, that their profits will plummet, that their power will crumble, and that they won’t have anyone left to wield the guns and cudgels they need to keep us all in line. They fear that if children are allowed to play, they will grow up to both expect freedom and have the critical thinking and creative abilities to make it happen.

Thomas Hobson

What if we designed schools and classes to let kids be kids??


*title of this blog post is a quote from Fred Donaldson