Thursday, 20 June 2013

play = teaching and learning

By: Anna 

Yesterday, my daughter Eliza (almost 4) and I went to work together. She had spent much of the morning quietly setting up an office in the small entranceway near our front door. When it was ready, she insisted I hurry. Mom! Don’t be late for work! We had a loose agenda, but Eliza let me choose which task I wanted to complete first, and we took a break for snack. It was pretend, but delicious just the same. 

Eliza showed me how to play her lunch box counting game. This was part of my job. The objective of the game was to correctly count all of the objects in a lunch box: one small bouncy ball, one witchy-looking-princess doll, one blue matchbox car, and so on up to a total of seven objects. She showed me how to write each letter of the alphabet in an old daily planner, carefully modeling how I should write only one or two letters on each page. Mainly Eliza taught me that she is interested in what happens when she goes to school from 8:30 to 5:00 every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and Mommy and Daddy go to work, that mysterious otherworld where adults spend so much time. By playing with her at “work,” I taught her that I am interested in her ideas and that I value her thinking process. When she asked, I also helped her write the letters R and Q.

As Eliza and I played together, we practiced listening and speaking, the balance required in a dialogue. Each of us contributed what we already knew, and we were both open to learning something we hadn’t known before. Eliza built on something she already knows (school) to explore an idea she is curious about (work). I allowed her to teach me how to be at her version of work and supported her by participating with honest interest. Essentially, there on the floor in our Eliza-made office we practiced the give-and-take art of teaching and learning in its purest, most compassionate form.

Today, when play has been banished to the edges (pushed into the spare minutes between the moments when “real” learning happens), I find myself wanting to call attention not to the empirically based connections between play and specific learning outcomes, (even though we know these exist!), but rather to the value of a play mindset in the fundamental, reciprocal process of teaching and learning.

In The Art of Possibility, Rosamund and Benjamin Zander describe teaching through a practice they call enrollment. “Enrolling is not about forcing, cajoling, tricking, bargaining, pressuring, or guilt-tripping someone into doing something your way. Enrollment is the art and practice of generating a spark of possibility for others to share.”

Whether in a pretend office, a game invented on the playground, or a curious observation explored by a team of students collaborating with their classroom teacher, children play and learn best when we enroll them in the process and, in turn, allow children to enroll us. We generate sparks of possibility and then, well, anything is possible.

play = teaching and learning 

There must be 600 different words we can associate with play. 
For each post, I will choose one - in this case, two! 

Please visit us at to learn more. 

Thursday, 13 June 2013

play = power

By: Anna

Soon after the Boston Marathon attacks, I wrote a post called play = comfort. I had just spent a day in lockdown with my husband and our two young daughters, and was reminded of how much solace we can find in play - not just children, but adults as well.

Ultimately, the feeling of being in lockdown (mandated to stay at home because a man armed with explosives was nearby) is best described as “powerless”. The powerlessness I felt was horrifying, humbling, and very real. Given varied circumstances around the world, some adults and children feel this extreme lack of control all the time.

For others, well, we typically feel out of control because we lose our last contact lens, debit card, and only front door key all on the same day that we forget that it’s “pajama day” at preschool, our kid is the only one in regular clothes, and we spill most of an iced coffee down the front of our white shirt just before a meeting. What? That’s never happened to you? Oh, okay, me neither…

Anyway, the more I watch children at play, the more fully I understand that play = comfort and play = power. Play can offer deep comfort partly because it allows us to create our own sense of control or power in our lives. Children specifically crave this power because, let’s face it, even when a child has the “best” circumstances (e.g., predictable relationships, shelter, clean water, healthcare, and, in certain cases, the difficult choice of sushi, Indian, or brick oven pizza for dinner) children do not have much actual power. In an adult-directed world, children may have too many choices and still feel powerless.

This is where play comes in. Children create their own sense of comfort by controlling their world in the safe space of play. I feel more relaxed just having written that sentence. Again: children create their own sense of comfort by controlling their world in the safe space of play. Allow them this. Can we? Can adults, regardless of how much we want children to succeed on standardized tests, compete on the indoor soccer team, and perform in the most highly-acclaimed local version of the Nutcracker, can we offer children the basic opportunities they need to feel powerful in their own intrinsically-motivated play?

I believe we can. First, adults must allow children time and space to play. Then, when a child is clearly feeling in control of her play, when the power is visible in her eyes, don’t be scared – just look closer. Look for this power, understand the need for control in a world that can seem really out of control, and support it. When a child wants to play “Mommy and baby” (and always be Mommy) for days and weeks on end, we can recognize how important this shift in role is for the child. When a child needs to be the bad monster, evil witch, or super hero, we can become the fearful child or mouse, running in fear or calling out for rescue. When adults understand play in this context of comfort and control, it is easier to support play without feeling powerless, threatened, or "out of control" ourselves.

When we see that a child is not actually harming anyone, we don’t always have to put down the sticks. 

Sometimes, we need to raise them higher.

play = power

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Wednesday, 5 June 2013

play = two small piles of woodchips

By: Anna

My family's favorite neighborhood playground was recently completely redesigned. At one of the first community planning meetings, I mentioned that wood chips are some of the best “stuff” of play. Imagine the odd looks. Really? Who is this crazy person? And please remind me why we allow these meetings to be open to the public? WHY?  

Woodchips? They go on the ground to cushion children’s falls. They are environmentally sustainable because the town breaks down “used” Christmas trees to make them. But, woodchips for play? No. Play happens on slides, on swings, and on the really cool rope structures that spin.

And, of course, it does. But, what I tried to explain to the committee is that the types of play that evolve when we afford children loose parts such as woodchips, are quite different from play that happens on swings and slides. All varieties of play are important, but they are not the same and the differences are critical. When woodchips are combined with other aspects of the playground, play reaches a “tipping point” of sorts. Children expand their thinking away from the permanent, static structures of the space, and a new type of play begins.

Case in point: Last week, my “3 and 5/6” year-old-daughter Eliza and I stopped at a playground after school. We had twenty minutes to spare before picking up my older daughter. The clouds were moving in, a storm was brewing, and our adventure was just beginning.

Eliza said we were going to New York City so I should quickly jump on the wooden fire truck.  She drove. I sat in the back because I was the little kid. “But where are the babies?” Eliza asked.

“We have babies?”

“Yes, these are the babies,” Eliza replied, as if it had always been this way. She made two small piles of woodchips next to me on my seat in the back of the fire truck. The babies were hungry so we fed them. They were tired so they cried loudly and then fell asleep. But when we arrived in NYC, Eliza was concerned. “How will we take the babies with us?”

Luckily, we had Eliza’s plastic sandwich container with us, having just finished her leftover lunch on our “journey to NYC.” She carefully tucked the woodchips into their beds in the container, I placed the container safely on the floor of our real car, and we drove away. As the rain fell hard around us, pounding the windshield, we were all dry and happy – even the babies.

play = two small piles of woodchips

Eliza holding one of her baby woodchips,
which she later decided looked more like a fish. 

Learn more about how to support child-directed play with loose parts at