Another Mindset that Matters: Being Playful

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Play is in danger of disappearing from primary classrooms, and it shouldn’t be. But I’d like to raise an alarm bell that play is extinct in classrooms for every American child over the age of seven. Yes, there are a few exceptions to this, but not too many.

It seems that play is something policy makers think kids need because they’re kids, and they can still get a lot of it outside of school. They may claim that more “rigor” is necessary for college and career readiness. I argue that play has unique benefits to learning and life success, which cannot be found in strictly academic settings.

Imagine this: You’re an upper elementary or middle school teacher, and somehow you find yourself walking in the primary hallway or wing of a school.

You stop to peek into a kindergarten classroom during that magical event known as choice time. You know you’re supposed to go copy a very important practice sheet for the state test, or maybe you need to grade that giant stack of literary essays. But from inside the classroom a tiny face catches your eye.

“Are you hungry?” the little boy asks. He’s working with a few other impossibly small children in a play kitchen area.

“What do you have?” You ask. A girl comes over and hands you a paper labeled, “menu.” There are some pictures of food labeled with a few letters.

“Today we’re serving clams and oatmeal.”

“Wow! I’ll have some of each,” you say. She writes your order on a small pad and asks what you’ll have to drink. “Hot chocolate? Or orange juice?”

“That’s a tough one. They’re both so good with clams. I guess I’ll go for the hot chocolate, though.”

The kids work as a team to get plates and a cup, serve from the pots on the stove, and pour from a teakettle. They bring your order and you eat it with your hands. The boy gives you a cloth napkin, which you use to wipe the imaginary food from your hands and face.

“That was amazing! I’m going to go write a Yelp review of this place right now!” you say.

The kids look at you quizzically as you return the dishes and make your way back to your very important work.

You just played! Sure, it was fun and cute, but you also did something really important for your brain. You adopted a playful mindset. You just created space for possibilities you hadn’t imagined before. Clams and oatmeal on the same menu, a meal consisting of these paired with hot chocolate. Dining with no utensils, but, somehow, a cloth napkin. 15 minutes ago this combination of variables didn’t exist in your vision of how things tend to go, but now it does. Congratulations! This micro-expansion of your worldview happens every time your vision of what’s possible takes in something new. “Clams and hot chocolate. Of course!” You were willing to try something in your imagination that you not only wouldn’t have tried, but— and this is the crucial piece— it was something that wouldn’t even have occurred to you to try.

Experiences like these create pathways in the brain that enable us to consider more readily unusual, inventive, creative, resourceful ways of doing the things we need to do. These are also the pathways needed to solve problems that haven’t been solved before and to create things that didn’t exist before. These benefits combine and work together to feed a mindset that is flexible, creative and courageous.

 This is my claim: A playful mindset is not just helpful for college and career (and life, adulthood, relationship and happiness) readiness, it’s necessary. Necessary. I had to say that twice.

Reflecting on Student Engagement: What are some of the conditions that make it happen?

I got to spend a gorgeous three days of Fall with about 95 sixth graders at the Pocono Environmental Education Center. OK, I’m going to say up-front that I wanted a cocktail about seven times a day for the three days we were there. It was pretty exhausting.

It was also amazing to see my city-kid students engaging with nature and with each other in such playful ways.

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This is where we were.  Continue reading

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

Colonizing the Block Room: Barn, Garden and Farm, Church, and House

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We spent two weeks in the block room. We built a settlement of sorts, referring to a large selection of books to help us design, build, furnish, and outfit the structures. The settlement included a farm/garden area, a barn, a church, a house, a close-up of a kitchen, a smokehouse and food storage area, a grist mill, a government buildings complex, and an overview of the settlement highlighting protection from internal and external threats.

In this post, you’ll see the first few of these. Continue reading

Fourth Grade Play-to-Learn: Colonizing the Block Room

Well, it’s the New York State math test this week, so I signed up for the block room again.

This time it’s a little different though. We’ve just started learning about colonial America. On Monday we looked at a painting of the Speedwell, talking about the people and the journey they were about to make, and the story the painting might be telling. That got us talking about how a group of people might need to set things up when they get to a new place that’s totally unfamiliar, lacks the resources they’ve come to take for granted, has resources they might not know how to use, and is home to very unfamiliar people.

This is about when my own personal line of inquiry about learning through play popped into my head. Of course history provides wonderful content that can be accessed through play. I had been thinking with my grade-level colleagues about how to make the beginning of the study feel more active and exploratory- more of a way to stimulate curiosity. I had already signed up for the block room several weeks ago, and it just seemed like a perfect match.

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Continue reading

A Week in the Block Room

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We are lucky enough to have a block room in our school. Brooklyn School of Inquiry started out five years ago with only kindergarten and first grade, but year by year we grow until finally we are a K-8 school. So in the beginning we had rooms for everything. This year we still have the violin room, the TRIBES/ Responsive Classroom room, and the block room, as well as a music room, an art studio and a science lab. I keep reading about co-locations and overcrowding, and I want to cherish the space we have to do the work we believe in as long as I can. We may lose these things soon enough! Continue reading

Fourth Grade Play- Polygons

Play-to-learn days have become the highlight of our math workshop! Image We just spent the first few days of our exploration of geometry looking at polygons and angles.

We knew we wanted to have a couple of days of play before more formally launching the unit. We also thought it might be useful to talk about the other play we’ve done in math this year. We reminded students of the Array Play Days, and of our Fraction Play, and discussed how play leads to discovery. It was interesting to liken the play we’ve done in math to the play they do when they are playing outside of class. At first they had seen it as something very different.

“If we’re playing, then we can do anything. Like throw things around and stuff. But we can’t throw stuff around the classroom. That’s not what you mean.” Continue reading