Colonizing the Block Room: Exploring Difficult Subjects Through Play


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. 

IMG_0023Punishment Block Room

I first went back and looked at the many different forms of punishment this group had created. While they were working I was puzzled and also amused by their extensive research into methods of punishment. They referred to these things as protection against “internal threats.”  They took such delight in describing how these things- stocks, gallows, the whipping post and dunking stool, they even had a stake at which to burn someone- worked to their classmates. They had originally had the school building next to the gallows, but they moved it “so the children wouldn’t have to watch hangings.” They did, however, think it was OK to put the church within full view of all the punishment methods.

They also had developed protection against external threats (Native People). This was mainly in the high walls and cannons. Far more of their creative energy went into the protection from internal threats. I would not have predicted this. Hmmm.

My focus in early discussions with this group was on their research- I kept asking them how things worked and when they might be used. They talked about these things as if they came from a fictional world rather than from history. They knew they existed, but in an abstract sort of way. Most of the class thought the dunking stool and stocks, in particular, were funny. As if they were imagining cartoon characters in them. I kept asking myself if I should find a way to help them see these things more realistically, as cruel and unusual. I was also arguing with myself that this was supposed to be play, and that I shouldn’t be too heavy-handed in deciding what learning should come out of it. I decided not to say much, but kept watching and asking questions.

As I think back on it a few weeks later, my focus now is on completely different questions:

  • What are the “internal threats?”
  • Who is dangerous?
  • To whom?

I’m fascinated that threats from within the walls are so much more powerful in their imaginations that they deserve so many kinds of punishment. I want to know more about their decision to move children away from the violence. Are these ways that 9 and 10 year-olds are facing a growing awareness of their increasing independence and separation from adults? I don’t know, but I’m pretty obsessed with the question.

I thought I’d leave you with a fun/disturbing little image:


Quick Note: The other concept that came up in the Block Room was slavery- a much more difficult topic. We’re still navigating this discussion now, so I’m not going to say much more about it in this post. I will say that having slavery come up in the context of play seems to have made it much easier to talk about it as a class. My students last year seemed more reluctant to dig into this ugly area.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s