Learning to Play, Learning From Play

27 09 2009

The whole New York Times Sunday magazine today is about various individual “identity” issues with education, from family background to sexual orientation. (Don’t miss the cover story, Coming Out in Middle School.)

One big piece is the story of our experimenting to figure out how little kids learn to control their own cognitive function, basically how they learn to learn to play, and from play.

It is Not News That Play Works, least of all here at Snook. Which is better news than this was! And Dana is writing about outside play instead of TV for little kids.

For me though, even outside play wasn’t so much physical education as it was the same sort of imaginative role-playing it would have been inside. Fresh air and sunshine was just another staging ground for the same power of story that tv and movies had infused for me with the Rules of the Roles.

And it turns out that’s what this NYT story is all about:

Can the Right Kinds of Play Teach Self-Control?

. . .a simple but surprising idea: that the key to developing self-regulation is play, and lots of it. But not just any play. The necessary ingredient is what Leong and Bodrova call “mature dramatic play”: complex, extended make-believe scenarios, involving multiple children and lasting for hours, even days.

If you want to succeed in school and in life, they say, you first need to . . .spend hour after hour dressing up in firefighter hats and wedding gowns, cooking make-believe hamburgers and pouring nonexistent tea, doing the hard, serious work of playing pretend.

What Tools does — and maybe what we all need to do — is to blur the line a bit between what is work and what is play.

There’s a lot here that sounds like Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards, about the failed attempts we’ve made as parents and teachers to control and condition young children like animals, training their minds to perform on demand with bribery, gold stars and scolding, time-outs and praise. The interesting upshot of the theories and research reported here, is that children develop all the essential cognitive organization and control for themselves, and that they learn it through imaginative play rather than traditional instruction, the kinds of play in which they assume various roles and must follow the “rules” of each role so the game can be played.

This might not appeal to most folks quite the same way it does to me as an academic, but any Thinking Parent and especially unschoolers are likely to find some confidence-building and useful ideas or insights for their own situations, and maybe you have someone in your life like a schoolteacher sister or a disapproving neighbor you can give it to, too!

It occurred to me that almost all our play with the kids was power of story. through movies, books, television, musical theatre characters and then later video games with the same or similar characters and stories.

So our humor and fun as a family was centered on knowing and following myriad story scripts, staying in character with whatever roles we were playing out, from the time Dad would be Eeyore or a Wild Thing and the child would be Christopher Robin or Pooh or Max, to throwing Les Miz and Ragtime dialogue and songs back and forth as we do now with two teens — Young Son is doing Shakespeare; it’s hard to remember how many shows Favorite Daughter has done, singing, dancing and role-playing her way to superior cognitive function. Who knew? 🙂

I can remember acting out the Wizard of Oz with the neighborhood kids in Allison Hall’s front yard, scene to scene. We all knew all the parts from the annual tv airing of it, and we’d take turns in different roles. For hours on end, every afternoon for weeks running, sometimes. This was our favorite thing, the only reason I remember her name or any of those kids.

I guess it must have been good for us even though we sure never got it at school . . .

And then after kids play their way into such highly developed cognitive virtuosity that perhaps it whirlwinds them all the way to Harvard, they’ll be primed to understand for themselves that the Rules aren’t necessarily the Rules, and we had it in our power all along just as Dorothy did, to discover for ourselves the whole wide wonderful world along with our innermost heart’s desire, right in our own back yard.

Morals Class Is Starting; Please Pass the Popcorn:

That moment, Mr. Sandel said, is often “a turning point” in getting students to question their own deeply held assumptions. New viewers and readers will undoubtedly find different moments when a light bulb suddenly turns on.

“There is a journeylike quality to the course and the book,” he said, adding that he did not “want to spoil the sense of suspense and exploration” about where this journey leads.

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7 responses

27 09 2009
JJ

Do you play with your food for thought? Good, here’s some more:

School Play? Oxymoronic

Acting Out Alien Story in Econ 101

Planting Seeds of Public Symphony

Forget Revenge, Video Gamers Get Rich

And in honor of Dorothy Gayle’s tornado in that whirlwind of learning:
Does School Teach Kids to Survive and Thrive?

27 09 2009
Nance Confer

As an unschooler now taking care of a 3-year-old again, this was a very good find. Thanks, JJ! 🙂

And I saved the Harvard link for me. I guess the older kids can watch if they want.

Nance

28 09 2009
Dana

I find it interesting how often my kids play school and what elements they incorporate into that play.

It would be interesting to cite studies on the value of time, play and free time rather than the academic success of homeschooling. Especially when we start talking about that whole socialization issue.

Part of why I consented to trying homeschooling was just because I think kindergarten is to young to start formal schooling. I was fine with learning how to handle classroom materials, stand in line and singing songs in between playing at various learning centers, but not with sitting at a desk with a pencil and learning how to hate learning.

28 09 2009
JJ

I never thought of it quite that way but given a choice between kids at home playing school, or kids at school playing home — I’ll take the former, wouldn’t you? 🙂

28 09 2009
Dana

Most definitely! I think they are trying to work out their place in the world. They know most of the people around them go to school or have gone to school. None of them want to go to school, but it keeps coming up in their role plays.

28 09 2009
JJ

Young Son has been a huge Simpsons fan for a couple of years now. Most of what he knows of school roles and scripts, comes from that. So I don’t need to say much at all, to persuade him his real world is more fun to play in than that pretend one . . . funny how things work out! 😉

28 09 2009
JJ

Favorite Daughter got more of it from books and some movies, I guess. Not just Harry Potter and Hogwarts but School is EVERYWHERE in stories for children.

One that really impressed her (in a bad way) was To Kill a Mockingbird:

“To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, because that was Favorite Daughter’s first love affair with a book as above, AND because Harper Lee supports homeschoolers, and she explicitly wrote Scout as almost accidentally learning to read well at home, which pissed off her officious second-grade teacher. . .

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