Colonizing the Block Room: Exploring Difficult Subjects Through Play

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A small clay man hangs from a gallows. I wonder what he did.

I’ve been doing a little reading about the importance of play in children’s learning and development. In particular, I’m trying to learn more about the role of play in tween and adolescent development. I just read a series of blog posts by Dr. Peter Gray. He is a research professor at Boston College and the author of the books, Free to Learn (Basic Books) and Psychology (a textbook for college courses). His blog is called Freedom to Learn, and explores a lot of ideas about play. In the first of a series of posts from a few years ago about the value of play, Dr. Gray offers a list of characteristics of play:

“People before me who have studied and written about play have, among them, described quite a few such characteristics; but they can all be boiled down, I think, to the following five: (1) Play is self-chosen and self-directed; (2) Play is activity in which means are more valued than ends; (3) Play has structure, or rules, which are not dictated by physical necessity but emanate from the minds of the players; (4) Play is imaginative, non-literal, mentally removed in some way from “real” or “serious” life; and (5) Play involves an active, alert, but non-stressed frame of mind.”

Gray’s writings about play led me to the work of George Eisen, author of Children and Play in the Holocaust: Games Among the Shadows (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988). Eisen interviewed survivors of the Holocaust about the kinds of play children engaged in while in work camps or concentration camps, and found that they created games that enabled them to cope (as well as one can) in horrific circumstances. Some of their play actually developed survival skills, some of it involved fantasizing about overcoming their captors, and still other play helped them make a kind of sense out of their experiences by removing them from reality. I thought about how children who have been traumatized often “tell” others what happened to them by role-playing the trauma with dolls- it’s less threatening to have toy characters experience the difficulty as surrogates than it is to retell the events as they happened. Children use play NOT as a way to escape difficulty but to survive it, to understand it, to have a way to deal with it- the opposite of escaping it, actually.

All of this has been knocking around in my head for a while, and I’ve gone back and looked at some of our block play through a newly refined lens.  Continue reading