Super Teacher's Job is Never Done!

Super Teacher's Job is Never Done!
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Teaching is the profession that teaches all the other professions. ~ Author Unknown

My goal is to reveal one teacher's humble journey of self-reflection, critical analysis, and endless questioning about my craft of teaching and learning alongside my middle school students.

"The dream begins with a teacher who believes in you, who tugs and pushes and leads you to the next plateau, sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called 'truth'." ~ Dan Rather

Friday, January 14, 2011

What happened to child's PLAY?

It is so disheartening to me to hear from my elementary teacher friends how little time is devoted to creativity, fun, games, and just plain play in kindergarten and the early grades. Instead, many American kindergarten rooms are now filled with rows of desks, worksheets, and workbooks now. 

What happened to god old fashioned clay, arts and crafts, blocks, and other engaging manipulatives we all learned from? Isn't it sad that we now value such a test-obsessed education approach that often begins in the womb? When will this all finally change? Will the pendulum finally swing back again to normalcy? Oh goodness, I hope so!

I am lucky enough to be a part of a valuable Harvard Graduate School of Education listserv from a class I took with my advisor there. Often, rich educational debates and valuable discussions occur over email from former peers teaching children around the world.

Here is some of what they had to say about the importance of PLAY for our young children and students:
"Thank you, everyone, for this rich conversation. Briefly, I wanted to mention the recently released film, "Babies," which follows babies in three cultures-- America (San Francisco/urban), Mongolian, and Namibian. It's a fascinating look at these questions of supervision and perceived threat, I am in South Africa for the next year and look forward to my own noticings!"


"I loved reading the reflections because I've had the great fortune of working overseas my whole career, and I am fascinated by the topic discussed.

Reading Amanda's description of Zanzibar reminded me of my time there, as well as in South Africa. 

In Johannesburg, my husband and I would sometimes spend time at the park in Diepsloot, a township near our school. We marveled at the children who played all day alone--2 year olds to 12 year olds-- all playing and taking care of each other for hours without any adult supervision. 

When one boy leaped over the teeter totter (in game with a pack of others), he tripped and hurt himself fairly badly, and as he scooted off and away, the other kids were laughing at his mishap. But as I watched I could see too that they were checking on him, and he rallied and grinned, taking a little time out to nurse a wound before deciding to get right back in and play some more!

In Kenya we stayed with the Masai out in the Loita Hills and they too would spend all day in various age-groups. Often the older child (even a 10 year old) would have full responsibility for a two year old, all day long.

The children would move in groups, play in groups, and be alone for hours or all day-- and even sometimes all night-- in age groups. Interestingly, in both settings I saw much more laughter and gaming than bullying or harm.

But still,  I believe that at times of conflict, the Alpha personalities (girls and boys) dominated in each of these settings and could be observed as the controlling force, either for care or for ridicule/dominance.

As for the role of culture: When it comes to 'justice,' I think culture plays a significant role. I felt that in Taiwan, the individual learned to follow the group norms. In Saudi (where I am currently) I feel  the individual learns to follow the pecking order (a learned pecking order defined by community status). 

Culture plays a significant role socially and I never get tired of observing human behavior (all ages) and reflecting on the impact of culture on behavior (my own included.....).

Over the years I've found myself asking the T-440 question  "What do you notice" and after observation I find myself able to adopt a more anthropological perspective. 

Regarding school approach, in every International school where I've worked we end up addressing the playground issue (Enough supervision? Consequences? Less needed? More needed? Bullying? Free Play?) 

Our School team definitely favors unstructured time for students,and we  explain to parents regularly what we feel are the benefits. (Note: Parents from different cultures have different expectations regarding Supervision, with North Americans the most frequent critics of our practices and calling for more adult supervision on the Playground).

Our practice includes coaching inside and outside of the classroom the behaviors that we value as a 3rd culture school, but helping the students solve the issues, and giving them independent time to do so.  

Thanks for the inviting conversation!"


"Thanks for your comment and question -- not sure whether to answer you here or privately so I'll be brief and then we can continue the conversation if you'd like.

My initial response is that yes, I've definitely seen moments of bullying that sometimes leads to fighting/tumbling among the children (boys and girls, around the ages of 4-10, the older ones are sort of too cool for that, there's more verbal sparring). From what I've noticed, it seems like the younger kids are usually fighting over who gets to direct a game or scenario, or sometimes a child will take things in a direction others don't like. There are definitely "alpha" personalities that lead to bruises, scraped knees, tears and wailing.

BUT I've also seen moments of sweetness and tenderness among the neighborhood kids. Sometimes this moves along familial lines -- everyone is a big family but when trouble starts, older brothers and sisters will defend immediate family. Other times, a kid will just notice that a less powerful/vocal little one wants in on a game and he or she will just take their hand and lead them to the circle or scenario. There's a lot of making room and then squishing in even more, closeness is a big part of play here.

Again, I'm not an expert by any means, merely a neighbour and friend here, not really thinking in research mode, but the observations have been rich and really wonderful. Children here are raised completely differently.

As a perfect example, when my two-year-old little friend started to get fussy, his aunt simply struck a match and handed it to him to marvel. At first I started, and got worried. But he was totally mesmerized. She walked away, and when it was time, an older boy who was standing nearby helped him blow out the match, and it was all done calmly, with wonder, and with joy.

I thought, that is something that would rarely happen in the States."


"Wow, what a great description. Thank you! So rare for most of us to get out of our context to learn how other cultures do it. Yeah for play. And, I might add, most of us adults need time for unsupervised play too -- thought the supervision we need freedom from might be our own internalized authoritarians.

Question: I'm curious about your observations about justice (somewhat indicated by your parenthetical "and sometimes fight"); How would you decribe how they make decisions and mediate conflict -- I ask this because the mainstream fear in the US I think might (among other legal issues) focus on the Lord of the Flies type situation happening. Many parents and teachers just don't trust children to resolve their own conflicts without becoming dominated by the bullies in the crowd. I don't share that concern -- at least not to anything like the degree institutionalized in many schools and homes in the U.S. But your vantage point is so informative, please tell us: To what degree to do you see: compassion, listening, justice, vs. more dominated by power, control and might makes right?"


"I'm currently living on the island of Zanzibar, within a culture where children have full and free reign over their play time, with very little to no supervision from public adults or parents. It's incredible to watch -- children of all ages play in small and large groups with very few store-bought toys -- it's all home-made or co-crafted to make it fit the game or scenario. They play for hours, until it gets dark and are called home for a night time snack (the big meal is lunch here).

Even when there's rough-tumble moments, adults very rarely step in to intervene. There's a lot of peer judgement and jury. I've learned so much about children's capacity to play, and learn while they play, simply by sitting out in the big, ramble-shamble local park and watching endless iterations of play, laughter, conflict, resolution, over and over again until it's time for bed. Older children are respected as leaders/teachers, but even the tiniest children are usually welcome to play (or sometimes fight for the chance to play).

This is all, of course, informal observation, but I've been humbled by what I've seen, and believe all over again in the power of play as a learning forum, because the children are actually free to make mistakes, fall down, fail, help each other up, and start over again.

And they welcome me each time I ask to join. I've learned really great hand-clapping games. So much fun. So relaxing, too!"
"I'd say it's a sad day when kids need a "playbook" to (re)learn how to play!  On the other hand, if we don't find a way to do what one parent said at the end of the article, "I think a big part of free play is having space to do it in, a space that isn't ruled over by adults," then we are really in trouble.  And how did we get so obsessed with test scores and liability for injuries that we no longer allow recess in elementary schools or playspace in kindergartens?  No outdoor play for kids unless adults are along to supervise?  Wow."


"Just looking at an article in the NY Times that might be of interest . .

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The Movement to Restore Children's Play Gains Momentum www.nytimes.coPlay helps develop crucial skills, advocates say as they try to pull children and their parents away from the screen."

"Growing up during the Vietnam War in a family of 12 kids, we played at any moments that guns and bombs stopped.  We chased each other in the rain naked, divided into teams for sling shots, used lemons and limes as balls, used rocks for many different games, etc.  We had so much fun unless we got caught by our mother who would whip us for fears that we would step on mines.  What I want to say here is that we learned to adapt to situations, be flexible, and be creative when needed.  As we’ve grown up, we've always looked and made used for whatever available around us.  Without free play, kids are missing these skills.  It's funny to see people who lost the remote control for a TV to spend a whole time to look for it instead of stepping forward to push the button by hand. 
 On the other hand, we had to follow the "rules" from parents, older siblings, adults and authorities, especially for girls.  We were not allowed to explore or discover because our parents and adults know "best".  For example, we had to follow the lines of letters until we could write exactly like those printed letters.  What we missed are analytical and critical thinking."


"Many children visit my wife's pediatric clinic here in Haiphong, Vietnam. I brought toys from the USA for the waiting area. If I give a child a puzzle-type of toy, for which there is an ostensibly 'correct' solution, many parents will immediately 'solve' the puzzle for their children, so that their children will know 'the right way' of doing it. Letting children 'discover' the answer or explore playfully, yielding unconventional solutions, is encouraged by a minority of parents."


"Thank you for your discussion about play and your stirring description of playtime during wartime.
I am a student of Vietnamese culture now, so all such information is truly of help to me. It helps to know more about how you "learned to adapt to situations, be flexible, and be creative when needed." I am teaching architecture students at the University level here so the learning / teaching situation around creative work in Vietnam has become very important to me. I go back and forth from the pediatric clinic puzzle toys to the design studio student projects and wonder about / improvise with ways to scaffold learning contructively in this cultural context.
Now that I think about it more, I do see kids play quite freely by themselves in the little yard across the street in our village . . . so likely these post-war kids are getting a share of what you had when you played in the rain . . . and one of the kids I teach English to on the weekends described the detective-like search process of finding solutions to hard math problems - he likes math a lot . . . so probably my initial comments were unfairly incomplete. It seemed so different from Amanda's Zanzibar, but maybe the comparison is more complicated than I first thought."


"I have enjoyed reading this conversation about play - it is a privilege to learn about experiences that folks are having in other cultures.  

I can add my brief experience in Japan, when I visited schools in about 1998  as part of a Fulbright  grant for teachers. At recess time in an elementary school I visited, teachers had tea together while children were left unsupervised in their classrooms, free to go outside to play or to stay inside, eat their recess snacks, chat and move freely around the room playing their own games.  At lunch time, the whole school was outside for a full 30 minutes (it might have been more, I don't remember) after they ate lunch. The younger kids played games together in one part of the yard and the older kids - middle school age - organized their own ball games and played together in different areas of the playground . There was no supervision;  I saw no conflicts or problems.  The kids seemed very happy and it seemed   like everyone was included.  This is of course not a big sample, and I know that  high school teachers we spoke to talked about  bullying among older kids.  But it was certainly impressive to see that the younger kids took care of themselves, without an adult present, and there was a long period of play for them every day at lunch time and at recess in the morning.  

For a wonderful account of play at the Mission Hill School in Boston, which I'm sure many of you know,  there is a new book called "Playing For Keeps," by Deborah Meier, Brenda Engel and Beth Taylor (Teachers College Press, 2010).  It is delightful.

It's always good to see what's possible, despite the repressive attitudes in most areas of the country. My daughter is having a hard time finding a kindergarten in Brooklyn which is not an "academic kindergarten."    It's disheartening to enter a kindergarten in most public school these days where there are no blocks, paint, sand, etc, and no time to play. All desks and worksheets.
Hoping for the pendulum to swing sometime soon . . . "

Oh, please let this change!!


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