I'm about a quarter of the way through Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind by Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire. It is very, very good. I suppose it doesn't hurt that the first chapter is all about play and how play ties into creativity. Talk about preaching to the choir.
Since I cannot just share the whole chapter with you verbatim, I want to share a few snippets, and then strongly suggest you find a copy of the book. I'm excited to read the rest of it. Probably these portions struck me as strongly as they did, because we are back at the school-thing, and I find it endlessly fascinating to watch how each of my children learn. As I watch them learn, I become more and more convinced that you cannot untangle the learning-playing process without doing some significant harm down the road.
I think I am also hyper-aware of the learning-playing process as I go about teaching myself to spin with my spinning wheel again. I find if I can let myself just play around with it... try different things, see what happens... I learn more and get better results than when I am trying to follow whichever set of rules or instructions I have in front of me. If I give myself the freedom to make some mistakes, I learn faster and enjoy the process more than if I am concerned with getting everything right. This is the role of play. Play gives us permission to make mistakes... try new things... make discoveries... without the feelings of failure that can come if we are just following the rules or instructions to something. I think we all know that a child (or adult) who is overly concerned with getting things right is also one who may be so fearful of making a mistake that little learning can happen.
(This happened right at my dining room table this morning. As well as yesterday went, today was a bust. I had several children who shut down due to feelings of fear when asked a question. Fear and learning cannot coexist.)
I'm not the only one to think these things:
"For children, play becomes a way of experimenting with the meanings of objects by using their innate curiosity to turn the unfamiliar into something familiar. It's important that children grow up in a home environment in which adult interactions support their natural desire to play in this way. Research has shown that pretend play is more common among children whose parents talk to them often, read or tell bedtime stories, and explain things about nature or social issues to them. Research has also found that in schools, encouraging pretend games either in the curriculum or at recess can enhance imaginativeness and curiosity." (p. 6)
Plus, play changes the brain.
"Indeed, if there is one fundamental function of play, it is to contribute to the growth of a flexible brain that is primed for creative thinking and problem solving." (p. 8)
I harp on this a lot, I know. But, I want parents and those who work directly with children to know this. Schools are becoming more and more academic at earlier and earlier ages. Society, at least upper middle class American society, is becoming more and more uncomfortable with the idea that children should have free time. Instead, every hour of their day is structured, either with school or homework or various activities which are supposed to be enriching. But:
"When a child is playing, he is experimenting with ideas, images, and feelings. Unfortunately, as a culture, we don't tend to view play in such a positive light. Children's free time has been steadily declining since 1955. While this may create more time for valuable activities, it also robs children of not only the enjoyment of pure fun but also the opportunity for the healthy development of many key skills necessary for creativity. These important skills include impulse control, planning, organization, problem solving, literacy and language development, symbolism, comprehension of STEM concepts, mathematical ability, curiosity, divergent thinking ('what if' thinking), cognitive integration of diverse content, flexibility, emotional regulation, stress reduction, integration of cognition and emotions, empathy, respect, social negotiation, collaboration, and tolerance for others -- a significant set of skills to allow to fall by the wayside. ... Some studies have found that direct instruction int he earliest years of life can backfire, making children less curious, less likely to discover new information, and less likely to make new, unexpected connections. In fact, psychologists in New Zealand found that children who learned to read later in childhood had greater reading comprehension scores, suggesting that it may not always be beneficial to rush children to learn key competancies. The evidence is clear: Time for play and curiosity supports learning." (pp. 9-10)
I'll say it again. Childhood is not a race. Learning is not a race. Take back your children's childhood and education. Create spaces for them to play and explore and yes, even fail a time or two or two hundred. Create spaces in your own adult life to do those things as well, not only to model them for your children, but because your life will be enriched as a result.