“ Renaissance thinkers studied children at play….”

Something bounced along my synapses when I heard that phrase.

I was on one of those late evening hunts for a resource when I ran into Edward Deming (1900–93) and his friend Russell Ackoff (1919–09) of the Wharton Biz School on a YouTube video archived from ’92. These two geniuses of the biz world were in a spirited and remarkably prescient conversation about the ills of education. It was a serendipitous find. It grabbed my attention.

In the wee hours of the morning over the last couple of weeks that quote about play continued to nag at me- the idea that two wise business icons saw play as being important enough to mention; one of those statements that you question, wonder about, and finally, seek to confirm. Why does play matter?

But, before I go there…

I’m an Edward Deming fan from back in the 80s. He was the biz genius who led redesign efforts within Japanese companies just after WWII — a result of his work under contract with the U.S. Army during what we refer to in our history books as Occupied Japan. Despite his successes there, it was only in the early 1980s when the American auto industry was losing its tailpipes to Japanese companies — Honda, Toyota, Nissan — that Ford Motor Company finally reached out to Deming for some help. He started using his famous red bead-white bead experiment as a teaching tool and became the persona grata of America’s corporate development circuit. For a brief moment in time, it appeared that running business as usual might change in America just as it had in Japan under his tutelage. But, as Deming once said the West and the East operate from different philosophies and different worldviews. The U.S. never could wrap around his work.

I was introduced to Deming’s work as a young educator and I’ve been revisiting his work periodically ever since to make connections to the work of educating young and adult learners.

Deming’s work influenced William Glasser somewhere along the way to blend Deming’s view of quality management with Glasser’s own understanding of humans’ basic needs — survival, love/belonging, power to achieve, freedom, and fun. Glasser’s work moves Deming’s from the factory floor to inside schools — among those educators who have chosen to adopt the principles of quality management and choice theory. Few have.

“ Renaissance thinkers studied children at play…. “

As a friend says, if you ask the right question, you can find anything on the Internet. Finally, my search for verification of this quote came up as a hit upon a Dr. Joseph Frost. When I found his article on playgrounds and play, it led to his book, A History of Children’s Play and Play Environments: Toward a Contemporary Child Saving Movement and this information:

“Leading scholars of the Renaissance and the Reformation refined and broadened the perspectives on play set forth by such figures as Plato, Aristotle, and Quintillian. They proposed that education should be reformed, harsh discipline banned, and schooling pleasant. Children should be taught according to stages of development, individual differences should be addressed, both boys and girls should be educated, and children should learn by doing. The pre-modern scholars discussed here became avid students of children at play, helping to enrich existing views or theories, adding substance to knowledge of play, and leaving a rich body of knowledge for later scholars. For example, “learning by doing,” a theme developed by Comenius, Pestallozi, and Froebel, was later to become a basic principle espoused by Dewey, Piaget, and Montessori. All understood, as did the ancient Greeks and Romans, that play was essential for health and development. “ (Ulich. 1945)

We humans like to play.

We’ve learned survival skills through play -practicing what we see adults do. Even though survival of the fittest on the plains or in the forests of generations past is long gone for most of us in the world, young people still observe adults at work and turn that work into their play. Watching children industriously and intensely involved in housekeeping and wooden block centers reminds me that our lives are bound to learning how to be a part of families and communities, life’s survival lessons rooted in play. When we take those opportunities away, we limit children’s capacity to turn play into the lifelong learning of family and community building.

As I’ve watched children at play in treehouses and sandboxes, on soccer fields and basketball courts, creating musicals and tent cities, it strikes me that learning to square with the community sets up a pathway to feeling a sense of belonging. I once watched a disabled child, on the sidelines of kids jumping rope, tentatively ask to turn the rope. I watched one of the rope turners take him by the hand and show him how to catch the rhythm of rope turning as another child jumped. The assistant stood watchful on the sidelines as the children worked out his entry into the community of play. The disabled child was learning about finding power in his own capability to own his fight through a challenging task. He and the rope turner were learning about the value of caring and belonging within a community at play.

Children gravitate to freedom and fun.