Thursday, April 11, 2013

As The Cookie Crumbles: The Play's The Thing...

Most children's school days any more are structured almost explicitly, it seems, to exclude any possibility of pleasure. Under regimes of 'standards' and 'high-stakes testing,' school has become a relentless proceeding of make-or-break competitions against odds that are stacked against a substantial minority of students.

     Our industrial model of schooling is very good at inculcating habits of workerly obedience and conformity--and dismissing the reluctant (we call them "drop-outs). Bells arbitrarily break up the day, between often meaningless/monotonous tasks, which forcibly reminds students their time is not their own., should they accidentally become beguiled. Homework ensures that kids get the idea that their work-day doesn't end when they go off the clock; extra CAN be demanded without recompense.  Endless testing prepares them for a lifetime of arbitrary and capricious assessments, and life-changing decisions that depend on them.

     But "play," even at the earliest ages, has vanished, has all but been banished.

     In Hong Kong, in '96, I visited a fairly typical, high-rise elementary school, in Kowloon, on the mainland. There were in excess o f 1500 students, grades 1-4; each grade had its own floor. The logistics were pretty staggering. During class, the children were pictures of decorum, sitting quietly, listening respectfully. But then came the local equivalent of "recess," and pandemonium would be a serious understatement: The whole building shook as a seething, swirling, churning, thunderous, shreiking, scrambling, howling free-for-all of activity erupted, for 10 solid minutes. Play! Like you've seldom seen: Exultant and loud.

     And then it was over, and everyone was back, sitting peacefully, at their desks, respectfully attending to the lessons.
     Play is not trivial, not unimportant, not insignificant. There is a lot of research on the matter, from the philosophical speculations of Huizinga's "Homo Ludens" --the playing man-- to volumes of scholarly material from universities and teachers' colleges. But let me try to put it into accessible terms:

     We've all seen the "nature" show wherein the camera pans across a field, then dollies in on some activity in the undergrowth, which is revealed to be some litter of cats or canids--foxes, coyotes, lions--tussling furiously over, under, around and through one another, obviously enjoying themselves enormously, while the narrator piously intones: "These little (lion/tiger/fox) cubs appear to be playing, but do not be deceived: they are practicing for the deadly business of life."

     And so do we, when we play, hone our skills at adaptation, and sharpening our attention: There's nothing like a dodge-ball up-side the head to keep you alert...

     Play ISN'T just for adults who can afford the latest toys. It's an essential tool of what is called "meta-cognition." It's how kids learn that they know needful stuff. It's hows we know we know.

     Let's go play in the surf: I'll see you at the beach...

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