What the world needs now is… play sweet play

Today, you don’t have to delve too far into current events without finding evidence of crisis.  It seems like the political and social systems we have relied on for decades are just not working anymore.  Some people are taking advantage of power, and many, many others are getting hurt.  Many systems right now are in a state of disequilibrium.  Needless to say, this is not a sustainable pattern and something needs to be done.  I don’t know about you, but this makes me want to play!

As a preschool teacher, I immerse myself in play all day, every day.  I couldn’t be happier. One of the reasons I love play so much is that it is so innate.  It is pervasive in the animal kingdom.  Scientists have found evidence of play in everything from dogs and bears to octopi and ants.   Children rarely need to be taught how to play.  As Maria Montessori said, “Play is the work of a child.”  It is how they make sense of the world.  During play, they are involved in an activity that is inherently motivating, enjoyable, and transcends time.  They are challenged, but not intimidated.  Their brain is working as they absorb the world.

As I watch my children play, I am continually inspired by their use of imagination.  While playing, my children can figure out what it is like to be someone whom they are not, in a place where they are not.  They can solve problems.  They can decrease their stress levels   They can take charge of a situation in a new way.  They can build new relationships.

During play, children have the amazing power to abandon who they are and really become someone else.  Already, my children this year have experienced what it would be like to take care of crying babies, teach a nest-full of baby birds how to fly, be a mud jeep,  design a city for crickets, and be a purple camel. I have one child this year who frequently decides that he is Superman.  I love watching him as Superman.  His face lights up in a new way as he runs around the playground.  He offers to help his peers in need.  He will help me clean up to show me how strong Superman is.  He runs around the playground faster than I have ever seen him move.  As Superman, he is invincible. He reminds me of a quotation by sociocultural psychologist Lev Vygotsky:  “In play, a child is above his average age, above his daily behavior; in play it is as though he were a head taller than himself.”

While playing, my children are solving problems.  Last week, three girls were playing in our dramatic play area.  They were busy making dinner and patting the backs of their baby dolls, when two boys approach them.  “Let’s get on the airplane,” demands one of the boys.  “I’m the dog,” asserts the others.  I saw the apprehension in the girls’ faces as they process these home-intruders.  “Shh,” says one girl, “My baby is sleeping.”  But then, one of the other girls grabs a backpack and says, “I’ll drive to the airport.”  She puts the dinner in the backpack, tucks her baby under her arm, and tells everyone to put on their seat belts.  The five of them happily continue playing together for the rest of the morning.

In the adult world, I see an extreme resistance to imagination.   It seems like it is all too easy for us to be absorbed in reality.   We are too focused on “the way things work” and “who we are”.  When new situations arise, when someone tells us to get on an airplane, we are too quick to push them away because the baby is sleeping.  Really, it is our imaginations that are sleeping.  I believe that this obsession with the present reality that has put our societal systems in crisis.

What would happen if we woke up our imaginations?   Would we be able to find a synergistic level of problem-solving?  Would we be able to abandon our previous plans and go explore new places?  Would we be able grow a head-taller?  Would we be able to harness powers that we never knew we had and run faster than we ever have before?  I would love to find out.  Who’s with me?

-“Play is the answer to how anything new comes about.” -Jean Piaget, Swiss developmental psychologist

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Embracing Preoperations

These past two weeks, my co-teacher and I have been adjusting to our new group of children.  A month ago, the majority of our children were five years old, recognizing most of their letters and numbers, solving social problems independently, and excelling in simple logic questions (Is it possible for a four year old to be taller than a five year old?). As is the reality in teaching, these children went to Kindergarten, and we embarked on our new teaching adventure:  young three year olds.  I have felt like I’ve been rewinding my understanding of child development as I re-orient to this new way of thinking.

I absolutely love the way three year olds think. Most of what they know concretely about the world, they have experienced through their own interactions.  They relate everything to their own direct experience.  On our hike this week, I was walking down a hill with one of my boys.  He was watching the mountains in the horizon, noticing that they appeared to be moving.  He delightfully told me, “Hey, I’m making the mountains move!” 

Jean Piaget, a Swiss developmental psychologist, calls this developmental stage the Preoperational stage.  During this time, children develop meaning about the world based on their own experiences, whether these experiences are generally true or not.  During this stage, young children can really only focus on one characteristic of concept or item at a time.  My children are pretty certain that all five year olds are taller than all four year olds.  Preoperational children are constantly expanding their understanding of the world.  Piaget calls this accommodation of schemas.  As young children have new experiences, they adjust their rules about the world to regain cognitive equilibrium. 

Another thing I cherish about children this age is their newly discovered utilization of questions.  I recently read an article saying that mothers of young children are asked 23 questions an hour.  I have never read or conducted objective research to validate that study, but from my experiences, it seems spot on.  I often feel like I spend the majority of my day answering questions.  I answer everything from, “When is my mommy going to pick me up?” to “Where does milk come from before it comes out of the cow?”  These children  are operating from a profound sense of wonder.  They have figured out that there is so much to know about the world, and asking questions is a great way to learn more.  These questions initiate from their own experiences, and they end up influencing my experiences.  Asking questions is also a great way for them to establish a relationship.  They see me, and other caregivers, as a resource.  They trust that I will validate their curiosity by listening to their questions.  They feel comfortable enough with me to let me in on their journey towards understanding.  I feel so honored to answer their questions that my co-teacher and I intentionally organize our day around discovery experiences. 

I wonder what would happen if we all harnessed our inner three year old.  Piaget, and other developmental psychologists, suggest that children grow out of this stage, eventually gaining greater mastery of understanding.  Part of me believes that in many ways the preoperational stage is always with us.  As hard as we may try not to, we base our understanding of the world on our own personal experiences.  It is a challenge for most people to hold multiple characteristics of something in our minds.  The media takes advantage of this cognitive pattern by villainizing certain people, or focusing on only side of a conflict. With intentional practice, it is possible for us to accommodate our understanding of the systems of the world, and regain a broader equilibrium. 

Let’s embrace it.  Let’s really analyze our own personal experiences, and find a realm of meaning that works for us.  Let’s ask those questions that really get to the heart of the issue.  There are seven billion people on this Earth who have developed at least seven billion different schemas.  What would happen if we took the time to build trust in each other by asking tough questions? Maybe we would come to a new understanding and a peaceful equilibrium.  Maybe we really could move mountains. 

-“No single logic is strong enough to support the total construction of human knowledge.”-Jean Piaget