Tuesday, April 8, 2008

An Inspiring Home for Learning, #2

2. Play might be just about the most important thing a child can do!

George Will once wrote in an article that children no longer play. They practice. And that's really how it's gotten to be. For good or bad, children go off to sports practice, where their movements are so directed that it really cannot be called play. Perhaps children gain some benefits, skill, and enjoyment from this (my own children participated on a sports team in high school), but it cannot be called play in the sense that psychologists and sociologists promote play. This is not about the pros and cons of sports, though. I simply mean to encourage long hours of free play for children.

A fourth grader who was interviewed in Last Child in the Woods said that he'd rather be inside than outside because inside is where all the outlets are! But to sit in front of a screen is not a healthy way for a child to grow up. I recently read about a study linking autism to TV and other screen time for children. A large pediatric organization is concerned enough about this to recommend no screen time at all for children two and under. A child needs to move, to play, to explore, to wander.
I have an interesting book of sociological research about play titled Play in the Lives of Children (by Cosby S. Rogers and Janet K. Sawyers). In the book, numerous studies are cited to back up the learning value of free, unstructured, undirected, imaginative play. The authors provide a specific definition of play for young children (and I think this can be extended to define play at any age):

1. Play is intrinsically motivated.
2. Play is relatively free of externally imposed rules.
3. Play is carried out as if the activity were real.
4. Play focuses on the process rather than any product.
5. Play is dominated by the players.
6. Play requires the active involvement of the player.

The subtitle of the book, Einstein Never Used Flashcards, is "How Our Children REALLY Learn and Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less." Of Einstein's childhood and education, Drs. Hirsh-Pasek and Golinkoff write: "Einstein himself led the way. Much of his learning as a child took place through play. His parents and family paid attention to his interests and fed them with lessons and toys and books-- and apparently, some freedom to do as he pleased. Einstein had freedom to be by himself, freedom to pursue problems that interested him."

I recently read a book with a nice section about the importance of free play. In her book, Exuberance, Kay Redfield Jamison (recipient of numerous international academic and scientific awards and honors) writes:

"Play is unscripted... Play is about learning how to learn. It is a kind of controlled adventure, an exploration of both new and familiar worlds. Play and curiosity are inevitably linked.

"A child is impressionable by nature, and made more lastingly so through play. Studies of children find that memory is sharper as a result of playing and that play increases performance on a variety of measures of intelligence... Play, a substantial body of research has shown, promotes flexibility in children's thinking and behavior...

"The more playful a child, psychologists find, the more creativity he or she is likely to demonstrate. Highly creative children and adolescents are far more playful than their highly intelligent but less creative peers. Play appears to exert a particularly strong effect on children's ability to produce flexible and original associations when they are shown an object or placed in a new setting. The level of elation affects the imaginativeness of play. The more joyful and exuberant the child is while playing, the more creative the structure and content of the play itself.

"Children need freedom and time to play. Play is not a luxury; the time spent engaged in it is not time that could be better spent in more formal educational pursuits. Play is a necessity. This is a lesson too often lost on competitive parents and educators. The average school age child in the US, it has been estimated, now has 40 percent less free time than 20 years ago. Recess has been entirely eliminated in many elementary schools, and lawsuits have brought a "safe" sterility to equipment on most playgrounds. Chemistry sets explode less often, but they are also a bit magical. Long lazy days of just 'messing about' are now filled with lessons, and games so structured as to teach little of what could be more interestingly and originally learned in wide-open roughhousing and aimless exploration...

"Children need to be given a long lead to explore and the encouragement to play heedlessly and exuberantly with other children; to make painful mistakes; to fall down, lollop, get lost in the woods, run madly about. They need to galumph."

I am convinced that it is through free, unstructured play and exploration (again, play that is free from adult planning, guidance, and intervention) that a child best develops curiosity, an imagination, a sense of wonder and delight, problem solving skills, creativity, resourcefulness, inventiveness, confidence, persistence, and many other important skills and characteristics. And these have everything to do with learning. Education is built on this. It is the means to poetic learning, learning that is based on wonder.

Play is just as important for older children, teenagers, and adults. It should be an unbroken continuum from birth to death, and we should all make sure have plenty of free time for "play." We may not think of the things that engage our curiosity and interest (and motivate us) as play, but they are.

True creativity, depth, and discovery in any field (music, art, science, business, wood-working, design, computers, sociology, academic inquiry-- anything!) requires curiosity and "play." Nobel prize winning physicist, Richard Feynman, wrote that after a period of complete burnout in physics, his spark was reignited when he decided to start playing with it again. Playing, he added, with no thought or concern about where it would lead or if there was even a point to it. He decided that he would do exactly what he wanted to do and follow whatever was amusing to him whether there was any seeming importance to it or not. After watching some students in the Cornell cafeteria throw plates in the air to make them spin, Feynman began calculating the ratio of wobbles to spins. He became curious about this and proceeded to figure out what was going on. Pursuing the questions that came up in his head due to this simply amusing "distraction" is what eventually led to his Nobel prize.

(It's interesting to read of Feynman's childhood in an essay he wrote called "The Making of a Scientist." His home was rich and free and playful. His parents were attentive and helped to nurture a sense of play and wonder, but he had long free hours to play in his own way. He became a self-taught young man saying that he learned better on his own than in school.)

Play is learning in a profound sense. A child's free play and solitary wanderings (through nature or books or anywhere a child is free and left alone) spark his imagination and curiosity, which opens up more play and exploration, which leads to more curiosity. A nice, widening circle begins to grow, and an education develops. Arnold Edinborough said, "Curiosity is the very basis of education, and if you tell me that curiosity killed the cat, I say only the cat died nobly."