Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The importance of play time

wooden train set from Taiwan

We've probably seen or heard them in trains, at restaurants or on the streets. These tech-savvy kids with their smart phones, tablets etc. The moment the gadget is removed, all hell breaks loose and screams can be heard like a surround sound system. What ever happened to play?

This is not a post that aims to slam parents or technology. Parenting is hard work and technology is the very reason why this post can be published. This post is really about play in its original form and design. Who invented it? How has it evolved? And has it become obsolete with the onslaught of technology?

Who invented it?
This is the easiest question to address - the children did of course!
As infants, they play with their newly discovered fingers and toes, even attempting to put their whole fist in their mouths, sometimes succeeding. As toddlers, they fiddle with everything and anything they can get their hands on - the remote control, the laundry basket or worse still, all the contents of your bedroom drawer. Branches quickly become swords and puddles evolve into water playgrounds! Even the 'slowest learner' doesn't need prompts or scaffolding when it comes to play.

The reason is - it is in the nature of children to discover through play. I hesitate to use the word 'learn' because it has become so warped and contrived, we will need to do a lot of 'unlearning' before the term can be properly used again. Point is, children are capable of initiating and creating play, in so doing they are also simultaneously finding out about the world around them, they do not need to be taught.

Perhaps then, it is we adults who need to inspect what we construct as play for the children as they grow older...

A simple illustration - its the day after a child's third birthday and his mum takes out a huge gift packed in cardboard, wrapped beautifully. Both mother and child rip off the colourful wrapping paper and open the box, 'it's a mobile train set!' The mother exclaims excitedly, while the child goes off to the play room dragging the cardboard box along with him. He climbs in with all the strength his stubby limbs can offer and begins to play pretend, 'choo choo... choo choo!'

There's nothing wrong with giving a child a mobile train set, but the problem begins when the mum hoists the child out of the box, pointing to the train set and insisting 'this is the toy, that is just trash'.

A moment ago it certainly wasn't trash, it was inventive play. The child saw in his mind's eye that the box was a train carriage and he was the driver, perhaps there was smoke billowing out, perhaps the carriage was green and yellow. But now, the mother (and the child) will never know.

Its form and design?
Play was not invented out of boredom, on the contrary it is how a child demonstrates interest. Its the reason why they often break things, they are trying to figure out how things work. Why is the second hand of the clock ticking? What makes the heating element in the toaster oven turn red? How does one get the lid of this cookie jar?

As a teacher, one of my favourite subjects was the study of society. In that class, students were required only to bring a jotter book. Before the semester began, I would explain that the lesson content would be discovered by them and they could represent their learning on the paper however they felt worked best for them. In addition to that, they could bring in articles that interest them in newspapers, websites or magazines and we would use those a references in our class. After all the study of society could not be limited to local examples or historical events.

The first few lessons were often awkward and stressful, some struggled to pen down my every word whilst others had a series of blank pages, they could not distinguish what was important and what was not. However, as the term progressed you'd see a significant change in their jotter books. A few meticulous ones would have categorised their lessons into content and skills, whilst many others would use mind-maps and flowcharts to depict key lesson points.

Some criticised my methods for being too lax and lacking in academic rigour, whilst others were concerned about the outcome of the national exams.

Please don't misunderstand, it wasn't that my students grades were not important. On the other hand, it was because being a student before, I understood that interest and ownership were more effective motivators to learning than grades or exam stress. A distinction might be a temporary reward for the student at his exams, but the freedom and joy to direct his own learning would last him a lifetime.

Is play time still relevant today?
Certainly, and all the more so. In a world where information seeks to dictate our lives, insisting on the definition of beauty, fame, success and everything else. We need to go back to that game of block catching which taught us how to laugh ourselves silly, or hide-and-seek where we learnt to keep really really quiet. We need to learn to feel with our hands, be it paint, pottery or sand, and not just with our eyes.

As a child, I lived in an apartment with a garden out the back. With my brother and our neighbours, we loved the evenings spent together after school. Poking ant hills, collecting snails, climbing up trees to steal mangoes only to be wounded by red ant bites, and squeezing through drains pretending we were taking over the world. What was your favourite game as a child? Hopscotch? Pepsi cola 1, 2, 3?

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