POLICY FOR PLAY SAID WHAT?…Play: Children’s Default Setting

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When I tell people I teach preschool for a living some reply, “What a great job. You get to play with children all day.”

My response? “You betcha.”

Play is not to be trivialized and is largely misunderstood. For young, capable and developing minds, play is serious business.

Adrian Voce author of the book, Policy for Play reminds readers in this extract that play for children is instinctual and imperative and being given the freedom and appropriate space to do so is their right.

Policy for Play

In this adapted extract from Policy for Play: responding to children’s forgotten right, Adrian Voce summarises the importance of play and the barriers to its full enjoyment that modern children face. This extract was first published on the Toy Industries of Europe’s Importance of Play website.

PinkW01While the precise nature of play remains elusive and indefinable, several academic disciplines – from evolutionary biology to developmental and depth psychology and the emergent neurosciences – each agree in their different ways that children’s play is central to who and what we are. It seems clear from these various studies that playing has a vitally important role, both in individual development and in human evolution, but that its primary purpose is simply to be enjoyed.

The great play scholar Brian Sutton-Smith famously said, ‘the opposite of play isn’t work, it’s depression’; the act of playing brings about ‘renewed belief in the worthwhileness…

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Take Away One

Courtesy Little Rock Family

Courtesy Little Rock Family

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“I hate Thursdays,” Bubbe barked.  “I wake up early for band, go to school, spend two more hours in religious school, come home, and do homework.  I need a break.”

“You’re right,” I sighed.  “But education is not an option.  Band is a commitment and you need to finish what you started.  Please put your clarinet away, get one homework sheet done, and pack a snack for Hebrew school.  We’re leaving in twenty minutes.”

Later that evening, I scrolled through registration emails for the upcoming season’s optional extracurricular activities:

Baseball: League 1 and/or League 2.  Travel team.
Tennis, soccer, swim, lacrosse
Martial Arts
CrossFit Kids
Lego Engineering
Hip Hop
Drama, drawing, Junior Chef…

and thought about the last line of my response to Vicki Abeles’s New York Times’ Sunday Review piece, “Is School Making our Children Ill?”

Let’s resolve to take a step back and give children back their childhood.

In my Letter to the Editor, I complimented the Irvington High School community in Fremont, California for taking steps to rescue students from their high-stakes childhoods by limiting homework requirements and encouraged parents of young learners like me and those of my students to be brave, take ownership and embrace such efforts by curtailing after-school and evening enrichment in an effort to preserve the social, emotional and physical health of our children.

I often fantasize about what might happen if children, from toddlers to teenagers who live in a community laden with a multitude of well intended non-school related activities gave them up.

Would the children be lost; bored and confused by the lack of structure?  At first, until they learned how to organize and occupy themselves.

Would they stare at screens instead of reaching out to each other?  Probably, until an observant grown up or precocious peer stepped in.

Would their resumes suffer, leaving them unable to prosper in a society fixated on success, competition and career?  On the contrary; extra time and space would give them a chance to practice the socialization, thinking, and problem solving skills needed to thrive later in life.

After the initial shock wore off, I think the children would forget how busy their lives once were.

I imagine they would pack the playgrounds,

Courtesy of Getty Images

Courtesy of Getty Images

pick up the sport they previously raced off to play with whoever was nearby,

Courtesy Alan Zale for The New York Times

Courtesy Alan Zale for The New York Times

put on shows,

Courtesy Bored Panda

Courtesy Bored Panda

hang from trees,

Paul McDonough Courtesy Sasha Wolf Gallery, NYC

Paul McDonough Courtesy Sasha Wolf Gallery, NYC

visit with friends,

Coney Island Teenagers Harold Feinstein

Coney Island Teenagers Harold Feinstein

relax with family,

Courtesy Getty Images

Courtesy Getty Images

get more sleep,

Courtesy Bored Panda

Courtesy Bored Panda

and take that necessary break.

And I’m pretty sure the adults in their lives would come to welcome the change.

Perhaps if these young people had scaled back schedules, their schools would not have to revamp homework policies like in Fremont, delay start times to accommodate the sleep deprived like in Seattle, and implement mindfulness training to battle the growing epidemic of childhood anxiety and depression as did New York City.

While the educational system has a responsibility to promote childhood wellness, we parents and guardians do as well.  Children schlepping from class to practice to workshops and back again offsets the effort made by teachers and administrators and puts additional stress on kids and families.

Still, my under-scheduled fantasy is a daunting reality for this worried mom.

What if my boys are the only ones who opt out?  They’ll feel excluded and alone.

What if they lose a competitive edge?  How can they impress college admissions let alone make any high school team?

Doesn’t formal exposure to the arts, technology, and team play breed well roundedness?

It’s healthy to take risks; sample new and different things.

Besides, Bubbe and Skootch seem happy when they are busily in the mix.

But their childhood is not mine, nor is it about my parental goals, expectations, angst or insecurities.

With that, I marked the registration emails as unread and approached Bubbe.

“Here’s the deal,” I explained.  “You know school and band are a given.  Think about the three other activities you participated in this time last year.  Rank them.  Keep the top two.”

“I definitely want my tennis lesson,” he said.  “And I’d like to try baseball again.  So I guess I’ll stop CrossFit for now.”

I cringed.  Bubbe nixed the one extra I believe physically and mentally benefited him most and chose a sport that requires a greater weekly commitment.  “Okay,” I said.  “Sounds like a plan.”

Gaining a free afternoon may not reflect the childhoods of yesteryear, but it’s a start.

Let’s bring back rest, play, and old-fashioned fun.  This season resolve to take away one.

The Day I Deleted Minecraft; a letter to my son

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Dear Bubbe,

I never intended to do it; really.  One second it was a quivering icon, the next it was gone.  Just. Like. Magic.

Honestly, it brought on a smile.  I’m not trying to be mean.  Chalk it up to a Mommy epiphany, a moment of clarity.  The day I deleted Minecraft, I liberated myself and you of a virtual, addictive burden.  Pressing that shaky, little X ushered you back to real life.  That made me happy.

In the beginning, I was a fan.

Compared to the other choices the video game world has to offer, I could see why you wanted to tap the piggy bank to invest in one that requires players to scavenge for resources, earn survival treasure, design landscapes, construct villages, and defend against intruders.  As a lifelong rock collector, forager of sorts, visual thinker, and creative designer it appealed to many of your natural sensibilities.

A popular topic of discussion at summer camp and later in the school cafeteria, Minecraft was also something to bond over with friends.  Game play and conversations led to art projects, dissecting handbooks, sharing song parodies, and pretend play.  It was a vehicle to stretch your imagination, apply ingenuity, problem solve, and socialize.  So like organized sports, enrichment programs, and play dates, this Mommy approved video game quickly became outsourcing I could justify.

Not only did I feel like I was doing right by your development; it kept you busy, safe, in an earshot and out of my hair all at the same time.  My afternoon was still my own and I didn’t necessarily have to entertain or engage with you all that much.

Then I began to notice screen time and giving up the screen made you cranky and angry.  You responded less to Dad and me, ignored guests, and blew off friends playing outside.  Preferred downtime was spent in the basement; alone in a Minecraft cave.

Even with the game shut off, I was living with a one note Bubbe on Enderman autopilot.  It was all you wanted to talk, draw, write, and think about.  And when The Skootch got access, twice the misery ensued.

So in an effort to find balance, we set up a schedule to earn and limit play time.

It didn’t work.

The timer chime was drowned out daily by your pleading, sometimes screaming voice, “I wasn’t done; I just found iron, I need a diamond sword, a creeper destroyed my supplies and all I have left is a raw chicken!”

It was only after the drama escalated to the point where I found myself ripping the IPad from your grip and yelling back, “Who cares; it’s not real!” that I knew we needed a big change.

All craziness combined led me to Deletion Day.

In the future, I’m not ruling out screen time completely; that would make me a hypocrite but Minecraft was sucking wind from your childhood and it needed to go away.

Proof of my decision came the morning after Deletion Day when I read an article about Steve Jobs; the man who invented the tablet on which you play.  He was brilliant for many reasons, particularly in his choice to limit his own children’s access to technology.

A few hours later, you played with months old Minecraft Legos for the first time and said, “Mom, this is fun.  I never would have known if I kept playing video games.”  I then knew we were heading in a better direction.

Your Lego comment got me thinking more about fun and parent approved outsourcing, both today and when I was your age.

Like you, I kept busy after school and like you, my mother gravitated toward outsourcing.  She didn’t have insight into child development or the value of play, I’m just pretty sure that when she came home from work, she didn’t want to see my face until dinner.

But I didn’t play video games, do gobs of after school activities, or have scheduled dates to see friends.

I was let out of the house and off the leash; in an earshot of only the person on the bike next to me and left in an unstructured and by modern standards, unsafe environment to play pickup games with neighboring kids, defend myself against obnoxious villagers, explore the nearby pond, collect crystals from a stream, build forts, and roam through the woods.

Call it my own, private Minecraft.  No IPad needed.

And it was good fun.

Listen, growing up isn’t easy but parenting isn’t simple.  You can’t always get what you want when you want it, and I can’t always do what makes my life easier.  In an effort to raise you to be a thinking, well adjusted, connected, kind, happy, independent human being I sometimes have to check myself and then love you enough to say

Enough.

Your childhood is just out of my reach, but it is not yet out of yours.  Embrace.  Enjoy.  Experience.  Take time in the real world to discover uncharted lands, dig caves, build cities, mix it up with the villagers, and have adventures.  You’ll be glad you did.

Now go.  I’ll see you at dinner.

I Love You,

Mom

College & Career Readiness: The Fancy People vs. The Leaf Pile

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The table of contents of the Common Core Learning Standards has the words “College and Career Readiness” written so often that it’s no wonder the public tone surrounding this latest round of educational reform is one of anxiety, concern, and contempt.

From the father of a five-year old who supports the Common Core’s goal to make students competitive in a global environment and believes educators only started questioning tests when they became tied to job performance to the well meaning mommies who vent through social media about their child’s school experience as well as the image conscious, high performing school district superintendent who misrepresents that his administration only had four months to prepare for these changes, communities are wrapped up in the notion that the Common Core is the primary determinant of a child’s success.

Now, in theory, I agree with the idea of a common educational standard.  As a former commercial banker turned fourth grade teacher turned nursery school teacher and mother of elementary as well as preschool aged children, I welcome the idea of an educator generated, developmentally appropriate uniform set of learning standards that applies to all students regardless of the state in which they live.  So at the very least, if a child moved, he could enter a new classroom on par with his classmates.

Unfortunately, we’re not quite there.  After reading the documents and listening to teachers who are active in the classroom, it’s clear that, like in the past, the majority of requirements are still developmentally inappropriate.  Plus I’m hard pressed to believe that they are truly teacher generated.  Furthermore, the related tests are unnecessarily hard, even when compared with the tests created in conjunction with No Child Left Behind, which were rigorous in our state and also, by the way, questioned by teachers at the time.

But it will be ok.  I promise.  Veteran educators will tell you that there have always been evolving standards, requirements, pedagogy, and new ways to assess teacher performance.  In the twelve years that I’ve been in education, all or part of our state’s standards and the related tests has already changed three times.

Strong teachers with thoughtful and consistent administrations who put children first will carefully plan and adapt their curriculum as necessary to accommodate change and continue to work tirelessly to give students what they need regardless of how these changes may affect their jobs.  Furthermore, professionals dedicated to educating children will communicate to them that The Fancy People tests, as my former students and I affectionately called them, are a snapshot in time; a moment that does not define who they are, determine whether or not they go to college, or have any bearing on their level of success as adults.  Most importantly, these people will continue to encourage children instead to get wrapped up in simple school global readiness tasks like building a leaf pile.  Let me explain.

Earlier this month, Bubbe our socially sensitive, creatively thoughtful, and independent minded child enthusiastically chatted me up on the walk home from school about such an endeavor.  What started as a solo project soon turned into an effort of about thirteen kids strong.  First, a girl, he didn’t know impressively initiated a conversation and asked to play.  As their leaf pile grew, it caught the attention of another classmate who is known to be an interrupter of sorts with a thin verbal filter.  Then a third friend joined; a sweet, atypically developing child who had confidently constructed with Bubbe in the past.  The kids were having fun when a conflict ensued.

“What a stupid pile!” a boy yelled, jumping into the leaves without asking.

“Hey!  That’s not nice,” the group said.  “The pile’s not done.  And you have to ask first.”

“Oh.  I’m sorry,” he said.  “Can I help too?”

The group quickly forgave him.  “Sure you can.”

When the pile jumping got old, the Interrupter came up with an idea.  “Let’s make a leaf water slide!” he said.  Together, the group transferred the leaves to the playground slide.  They first tested the leaves alone; then the kids took turns sliding with them and into a pile at the bottom.  Recognizing the fun, a bunch of football and soccer players stopped their game and joined in.

What did Bubbe’s teacher and the recess aides do?  They watched knowingly and lovingly.  And as they blew the whistle to line up, the gaggle had one final leaf fight, threw the leaves in the air and yelled, “It’s Fall time!”

As far as I’m concerned, that experience prepared those children for college and careers in a global, competitive environment better than all the Fancy People standards and tests combined.  Twenty minutes of leaf play taught them to lead, initiate, share, imagine, invent, create, communicate, collaborate, take risks, play a part, make mistakes, forgive, be forgiven, and get along with different kinds of people.

Think about it.  Aren’t these the most useful and lasting determinants for success?  Aren’t these the skills we adults look for when hiring someone?  And aren’t these the traits we want in a classmate and coworker? 

So to the school official who feels pressured, the father who is hell bent on preparing his five-year old for our competitive world, and the worried mommies, please remember that stress breeds stress.  Tests and standards will become a distant memory.  Playing in the leaves with friends at recess will not.

But The Fancy People are at it again.  So what do you do?

First, read the Common Core Standards, at least for your child’s grade level, understand who crafted them, and learn more about the current College Board President’s role.

Two, advocate: positively, proactively, and collectively.  Sit down with your principal, superintendent, curriculum coordinator, and Board of Education representatives.  Find out their long term education plan, ask about curriculum adaptations, adoptions and timing, understand their philosophy about teaching children, and while you’re at it, inquire about how the current reform relates to funding sources and state mandates.

And finally, do the most essential thing we can do to prepare our children for the real world; get wrapped up with them…in the leaves.

Common Core Standards

Education Advocacy and Reform

Local Efforts