Monday, September 19, 2011
Real Play, Fake Play
Grownups must periodically rediscover that play is an Important Thing for children to do. This time around, it's being touted for its value in developing "executive function": the ability to plan, exercise self-control, negotiate, and persist. Which is, of course, absolutely correct. All young mammals play at exactly what they need as grown-ups. Young tigers play at pouncing on things, and young cows play at running into things. Young people play at managing small worlds of their own devising.
But the great danger is that as soon as grownups discover that something is important for children, they will ruin it by turning it into something children Have to Do. At which point, if you are under the age of 12, you instantly realize that it's not playing any more.
So I have very mixed feelings when I hear about something like these Tools of the Mind classrooms. Sure, it's better that children be given time to play than herded into one worksheet after another. But by the time you've sat down with a teacher, made an official plan for playing, then been required to stick to that plan for a designated period of time--well, that doesn't sound much like playing anymore. The children aren't the executives any more, they're only the middle managers.
And when I got to the bottom and read in the Q&A, "How much of our 7.5 hour kindergarten day should be devoted to playing?" and saw the answer, "Kindergarteners should play for at least 30 or 40 minutes a day," I gave up. Thirty or forty minutes? Out of 7.5 hours? Five year olds? Now I understand you need time for eating and resting and picking up and an ungodly lot of time for going potty, but still. Thirty or forty minutes of work on letters and numbers and the rest of the time spent playing would be a much better balance, and produce much better results both in literacy and general sanity.
Play is important for children because it's what children are wired to do. It's like real food: we can try to scientifically analyze the different parts and functions, but no one will ever come up with a pill that has the same effect on mind and body as eating a vine-ripe home-grown tomato. And we'll never come up with an activity for children that is as beneficial as real play. But it's only real play if the grownups can keep their grimy mitts off it.