The Pursuit of Play

Parents want school as we knew it. We pine for the kind of “academic rigor” that we feel characterized the classrooms of our childhoods: We crave the stacks of math worksheets; we wax nostalgic about the unforgiving school marm; and we remember (fondly, ironically) that excruciating science test the whole class failed. No amount of neuroscience or education research can convince us that our schools should reflect our changed understanding of learning and the mind. Blackboards, fill-in-the-blank, and one-size-fit-all teaching worked for us, right?

It is one of the great paradoxes of modern parenting that the more we understand about education, the less we seem to believe it. We can read study after study from Jo Boaler, Daniel Seigel and Erika Christakis, and we are still unconvinced that our schools should look radically different than the schools of our own pasts.

Not to mention of course, the false assumption — or the trickery of memory — that our passive learning experiences were academically rigorous. For my generation of parents, the generation that attended preschool and elementary school in the 80s, it is more likely that academic rigor was the bi-product of good, old fashioned play. You might remember it: hours of unstructured time to roam the neighborhood, an entire Sunday dedicated to recreating the movie Annie, the pretend store you ran out of your basement, reading at whim, building a four-story fort, or the pick up soccer game turned ghosts in the graveyard (you know, our generation’s version of street stickball).

Does play birth academic rigor? Absolutely: play develops cognitive skills. Play is an intellectual pursuit. I have watched groups of young children try to put on a show, negotiating skillfully the distribution of roles, creating a multi-layered stage with pillows and blankets, recruiting an audience, designing a program, and problem-solving how to handle the super annoying younger sibling that won’t take direction. Any moment in this play scene is much more cognitively complex, much more intellectually challenging than sitting at a desk matching the word to the corresponding picture, or spitting back dozens of math facts, or reciting the months of the year during “calendar time.”

If we want to expand children’s minds, we need to let them play in and out of the classroom. As Vivien Paley famously wrote “play is a child’s work,” and we need to value play as an essential part of intellectual development, (which, by the way, is inextricable from social and moral development).

So, parents of my generation, worry less about when your children learn to read and worry more about whether they can choose a book and revel in it during unstructured time. Worry less about whether your kids know their upper and lower case letters in kindergarten and more about whether, when given the chance to play, they can use language to communicate clearly. Worry less about whether your little ones can count to 100 by age four and more about whether they can, if given the chance to play, invent 100 ways to create with only four materials.

School as we knew it should not be school as our children know it; we know better and so can they.