I had the privilege of going back to my graduate school, Bank Street College of Education, for The Building Blocks of Play Conference last weekend. For those of you who are not connected with the school it is truly a magical place where children’s hearts and minds are valued on such a deep level. I am the teacher and parent I am because of my time at Bank Street. I am a better humane being for the time I spent at Bank Street. I’ve spent the past few days thinking about all the wonderful speakers, and wishing I had a few more hours (okay days) to soak up more of their wisdom. Here are some of my key takeaways on the Value of Play for Children and Adults.
PLAY AS A PRIVILEDGE
One of the most fascinating parts of the conference was how Linda Mayes, Interim Director of the Yale Child Study Center, wove the story of how children have played through history. Linda Mayes stated “Children have always played. But children have always worked.” In the turn of the century play became a privileged act for children of higher socio-economic status, since the rest of the children were spending long days in factories, mills and mines. There was no time for play. This began to change with the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. What immediately resonated with me is how hard we fought in the United States to give children back their childhood, to get them out of the factories and into schools. To learn and to play, and yet here we are in 2015 pleading with schools to Slow Down and Let Children Play. We have forced children back into the factory model public schools were originally based on. We are punishing children and teachers for mistakes. We have left no room for experimentation. No room for creativity. Limited time for play. We are failing our history.
PLAY, ART AND BOOKS
When I saw the line up of authors who would be speaking at The Building Blocks of Play Conference I was overjoyed! Robie Harris, Laura Vaccaro Seeger, Nina Crews, Paul O. Zelinsky and Peter H. Reynolds gave us a window into how their books connect literacy and play. Of course I was practically jumping out of my seat connecting the dots between their words and the Preschool Book Club where we explore books through play. The use of cut outs in Laura Vaccaro Seeger’s books invites the reader into the books as the simple act of turning the page becomes part of the story. In an instant a child has entered a new world. Nina Crews’ use of photography honors and values the play of children at it’s most intimate level. Books are a starting point for children and adults to express themselves. Children’s literature allows all of us to instantly jump into a new world and play.
PLAY AND TRANSITIONAL OBJECTS
“Is there an age children should stop having a transitional object?” a member of the audience asked Linda Mayes and Robie Harris. They both shrugged and Linda Mayes said “Kids take transitional objects to college. People have frames of their family at work. We all have transitional objects.” The audience laughed, but I think this laughter was also a sense of relief. For me it was an “aha!” moment. Of course we all have transitional objects. I still have the baby blanket my grandmother quilted for me before I was even born laying on my bed. My husband has pictures of us in his office and cherishes the tattered pajama pants his grandmother gave him before she died. It is not the object that matters, but the meaning behind the object that needs to be valued. As a mother to an anxious child, I know first hand how important transitional objects are to my child. Transitional objects say to a child (and an adult) that your loved one is with you even when you can’t see them. We should not dismiss this or undervalue it. This piece of emotional development is lifelong and should be embraced.
PLAY AND ADULTS
Do you play? Do you day dream? Do you look at the clouds and imagine they are something else? Do you get so engrossed in something that time seems to disappear? These are some of the questions Linda Mayes posed to the auditorium of adults. As adults we often get caught up in life’s work and chores, but play should continue throughout life. I thought of how much more enjoyable the day is with my children, when I put my phone away, set the chores aside and get down on the ground with them and play. We laugh, we play and the day is filled with fun and happiness. We need to value play as much as we value work.
PLAY, ART, CREATIVITY AND HEART
I could have listened to Peter H. Reynolds, author of the Dot and Ish, speak all day. Reynolds’ passion for the human heart is evident from the moment he began to tell the story of his childhood and the teacher who transformed his life. The teacher who saw his potential, though outside the box, and taught him through play. If you have read Reynolds’ books it will come as no surprise that he values the role of the teacher in the child’s life. Here are some of my favorite points from Reynolds.
“Do no denigrate your own work.” Children are listening. If you say “I’m not good at art” they will in turn start to look at their own life in terms of what they are not good at.
“Show kids what bravery looks like.” We were recently on vacation and my children and their cousins were begging their Grandma to go down a waterslide. My mom hates water, but she looked in their eyes, saw how important that moment was to them, and decided to go for it. We all cheered her on as she climbed to the top, and with the support of my 4 year old nephew, went down the water slide. (And learned how refreshing water on a hot day can be!) I hope they never forget that experience when they are faced with a courageous moment.
“Classroom-ish” The classroom should not be confined to four walls in a school. A classroom is your neighborhood coffee shop with tables perfect for small group work or exploring as an individual. It is your home, the dinner table. It is the playground. It is the walk in the woods.
“Creativity is messy.” We tend to shy away from mess as adults, but we need to value creative mess. The moments when we let ourselves go to truly explore. Becca Zerkin, who led the coolest Pop-Up Workshop, stated to us in the instructions “Make a mess. If you didn’t make a mess, you didn’t push yourself far enough.” I smiled so big at this comment. I always say to my students and children when they are working and become concerned about the paint on their hands or clothes. “Oh good, you got messy. Now you are a true artist. Artists get messy.” They smile and dive deeper into their world of play.
As I left the walls of a school that will forever feel like home and hold a piece of my heart, I felt re-centered in my mission to support the education of the whole child and support parents and teachers on this journey. May we all teach children to day dream, to get messy, to make mistakes, to laugh in the rain, to jump in the biggest puddle in the street, ask questions, build tall towers and play. And may we learn along side them.