Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Master players

I've been doing a lot of reading about the power and benefits of play. This is a usual topic for me, but with the arrival of R., it has felt vital. I am more convinced than ever that imaginary play is something incredibly needed by all children for mental and emotional growth. Imaginary play is how children practice new ideas and new skills. It is how they practice interacting with the people and the world around them. It is how they practice being human.

The book I just finished is, The Play's the Thing: Teachers' Roles in Children's Play by Elizabeth Jones and Gretchen Reynolds. While it is directed at early childhood educators, I find it has plenty to say to me as a parent in how to encourage and make the most of my children's play. It also helps to give me more language as to why it is so important. (Great, you're thinking. Just what she needed... more ammunition.) This book is very much in the same vein as Vivian Gussin Paly, whom I rave about at intervals, and is heavily influenced by the thinking of Lev Vygotsky, one of my favorite educational theorists.

What I love is how seriously the play of children is taken. And if you've ever watched a child engrossed in imaginary play, you can see that for them, it is extremely serious work. I also love the term they use for children experienced in imaginary play, that can be sustained for hours: Master Players. It just fits. I realize that I am so used to having master players in my house that I take it for granted a bit. At least I take some children's ability to play for granted. It seems that G. and L. were practically born at the level of master player and have just worked on refining their art. It is just what they do; who they are. Yesterday, children happily took the new box of sidewalk chalk from Easter out to the backyard where they proceeded to create an entire town on the cement slab that is back there. It was only later that I realized it was more than the usual suspects, G., L., and K., at work. Added to the mix were H. and Y. Having watched Y. in action for the past two months, this didn't surprise me. She came to us primed for this type of play and has loved every minute of imagining things with her new siblings. But H. was playing! Can I say it again? H. was playing!! It was real playing, not the parallel-stuff we had gotten so used to. But real, honest to goodness, collaborative play!

If there is one thing I can point to that truly explains just how far this child has come it would be this. If you can play, you have a life inside your head. You can imagine different things. You can try being different things. You can practice being brave in the face of scary things. If you can imagine, you have a chance at staring down your demons. If you can imagine, you have a chance at seeing what can be and not just what is. It gives me hope for R.

There is one small beef I have with the book. Over the years I have watched my own master players play... and play and play and play up through elementary school. Because of our schedule, they have always had the freedom to engage in as much play as they needed without regard to age. This book (and nearly every book I've read like it) cuts off the play at age 6. Somehow, modern society has gotten into its head that at age 6, life becomes serious and schoolwork becomes the prime directive. Why? What is so magical about six except that we have set our schools up that way? Children still need to play, even at the ripe old age of six. Heavy duty academics can wait.


"Synchrony - precisely coordinated timing - is a basic characteristic of industrial society. It is no historic accident that the clock has dominated the schoolroom wall and that every day in most kindergartens begins with "calendar." But as society moves from the rigidity of the assembly line to the flexibility made possible by information technology, our children may be better served by schooling that fosters their exploration and initiative, instead of schooling that fosters unquestioning obedience to clocks and calendars.

Obedience is a virtue in a stable society where the unexpected doesn't often happen. But in a rapidly changing society, children have greater need for confidence n the face of new problems to be solved. Children regularly encounter problems in their dealings with the physical world and with other human beings, big and little. Teachers can help them to become increasingly independent problem-solvers.

An animal that depends on the accumulated knowledge of past generations has to have some time to acquire that knowledge. An animal that depends on imagination has to have time to exercise it. Childhood is that time... When we're children we're devoted to learning about our world and imagining all the other ways that the world could be. when we become adults we put all that we've learned and imagined to use." (The Play's the Thing, pp. 30-31)


Donna said...

What great insights! I was just thinking about this tonight in a slightly different vein. When older children are adopted from China, I often hear comments about how "delayed" or "socially immature" they are. In some respects, of course, this is true as an institutional setting does not foster social skills in the usual way. What I have also learned, however, is that in China children get to be children much longer than in the US. Yes, they have long hours at school and pressure to achieve, but what they don't have is pressure to grow up too fast and be little adults at 10 and 12 and 14. My youngest is 13 and has only in the last year moved away from her Barbies and dolls, but she and her friends still play games with lots of imagination -- things that would be called babyish in the US and raise eyebrows about their "maturity." Without the influence of American media and peers, they are free to be kids and play as long as they want to. I have come to realize that much of what American adopters call immaturity is what we used to call childhood.

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