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