Let the Children Play

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When he gets frustrated, he uses the puppets to talk out his feelings. We role play, he and I. This is not time for academics, paper and pencil. This is pure, unadulterated imagination. He needs it; oh, how he needs this opportunity to freely play. Unstructured. Liberated from the confines of classroom protocol, even if but for mere moments. He talks to me with his hands, showing me that he needs this time to unwind. To imagine. To portray. And I am listening carefully, reading in between the blurred lines, so as to understand all the reasons why this matters so very much.

A while back, another one used to wander the hallways. He never seemed to have a sense of commitment to any one room, any one place. Flitting here and there, we would find him where he was least expected. Now he spends that time that he formerly used to wander, playing. He pretends that he is a ‘cop’ or a salesman. He makes intricate creations out of chain links. He reads books and plays office. He loves to imagine, and his teachers report that the behaviours that were formerly front and center have vanished. Could it be because of play?

These little people, young learners: they crave the time allotted for play. The boys do especially, but certainly the girls too. Each day, when that time comes- when that hour arrives: they relish it like it is their last supper. When playtime is over, they ask, “It is over so soon? It’s already done?” It seems unbelievable to them that their beloved Centers have now ended- as it appears to them that play only had just begun. That’s how it is with playful learning, how it is with inquiry-based learning: time passes along and you don’t even know where it has gone.
Play is just that subtle and unobtrusive in scope, yet vital and necessary in its impact to really make the difference between children doing well and children doing poorly.

According to Christina Hoff Sommers of Time magazine,

“Prolonged confinement in classrooms diminishes children’s concentration and leads to squirming and restlessness. And boys appear to be more seriously affected by recess deprivation than girls. “Parents should be aware,” warn two university researchers, “that classroom organization may be responsible for their sons’ inattention and fidgeting and that breaks may be a better remedy than Ritalin.”

Angela Hanscom writing for the TimberNook blog says,

“Fidgeting is a real problem. It is a strong indicator that children are not getting enough movement throughout the day. We need to fix the underlying issue. Recess times need to be extended and kids should be playing outside as soon as they get home from school. Twenty minutes of movement a day is not enough! They need hours of play outdoors in order to establish a healthy sensory system and to support higher-level attention and learning in the classroom.”

According to a document drawn up for the Canadian Council on Learning by Early Childhood Education Program Chair, Par Jane Hewes, play is undervalued and all children’s opportunities for free play are under threat (both for the boys as well as the girls). She says:

In recent years, the trend has been to introduce more content via direct instruction into the practice of early-
childhood professionals. Research demonstrates that this approach, while promising in the short term, does not
sustain long-term benefits and, in fact, has a negative impact on some young children.17 Long uninterrupted
blocks of time for children to play – by themselves and with peers, indoors and outdoors – are becoming increasingly rare.  The developmental literature is clear: play stimulates physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development
in the early years. Children need time, space, materials,and the support of informed parents and thoughtful,
skilled early-childhood educators in order to become “master players.”18 They need time to play for the sake
of playing.

She goes on to add the following:

There are unique and fundamental developmental benefits that derive from spontaneous free
play. The child’s experience of intrinsic motivation in play is fundamental to successful life-long learning. Play is a valid learning experience in and of itself – albeit one that has been difficult to justify and sustain in formal educational settings.

I don’t know the all the reasons for why kids are finding school to be a place they feel lost. But I can imagine that if I were a child, I would probably not be able to get through my day without a diversion of some sort. Some kind of escape that could whisk me away from reality even if only for a moment or two. That’s why teens and adults love social media so much- it is our chance to play. We all need an outlet in our life, and for most of us, we find that relief from the busyness of life and reality through play, whatever ideal that particular form of play conforms to.

After all:

“Young children learn the most important things not by being told but by constructing knowledge for themselves in interaction with the physical world and with other children – and the way they do this is by playing.”
Source: Jones, E., & Reynolds, G. (1992).
The play’s the
thing: Teachers’ roles in children’s play, p. 1

With this in mind, can’t we just let the children play?

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Satisfied

I am running up the uneven and worn sidewalk blocks, grass growing up between them. Frost from past winter’s freeze has shifted and changed their original direction. Water soaks the ground beneath my feet, splashing up and over the sides of a rather closely situated water slide. I run towards the entry point high above so that I too might ride, running towards the staircase as if I am ten years old again. Ten years old: just like my Sarah who made this milestone today at exactly 6:26 p.m. this very evening. I race up the slope towards the inclined steps that lead to two rather small and well-used waterslides. Small but perfect- that’s my view. These waterslides: ‘just right’ for the forty-year old woman who believes she just might have a ten-year old heart. Perfect for me.

And oh! the exhilaration. To stretch one’s body in pike position and feel the speed. The water beneath and the wind above. Yes, for some it might be a small thrill. But for me, I am just satisfied. Satisfied! With this. All of this. This day and the juxtaposition of special and mundane. This weather, a mix of rain and sun. This park, this place, these people.

I’m satisfied.

Satisfaction. It’s a form of contentment. A feeling of being fulfilled. It is an experience of pleasure, happiness and joy. A state of being gratified. Grateful for what one has, whatever that “what’ might happen to be. Grateful for the small- grateful for the vast. It is a sentiment that calls one to give thanks for the gifts ones has been given, seeing the gift in the ordinary simplicity of everyday life. Feeling satisfied with commonplace, everyday pleasures. Commonplace, everyday blessings. When we are no longer able to feel satisfied, something happens. We start feeling ungrateful. Unappreciative. We start looking around, noticing that what we have is less than what others might have- not as special and unique as what someone else has in their possession beside us or next to us. We start evaluating our stuff, our things, our situation, our people- on the basis of what we see around us. We place unfair expectations on the gifts we’ve been given, unwisely wanting them to be something they were never meant to be. And then, there is a feeling of desire that ensues. Desire that craves something more, something bigger, brighter, better, bolder. Something beyond.

It’s a nasty cycle. And it can lead to darker places by the name of Greed and Envy and Jealousy and Dissatisfaction. Trust me, I’ve been there. They are not places you’d wish to visit.

We all know our vulnerabilities. Our area of weakness. It’s how we shift our thinking so as to make our response one of satisfaction, one of sweet contentment rather than one of discontentment and irritation. This is what that determines our joy.

And what a difference a day can make.

Yesterday morning, I woke up feeling frustrated. I was not happy with anything- the state of my house, the state of the day’s affairs, the people around me, the fact that it was August. I mean August: the summer might as well just end RIGHT NOW, now that August has arrived. Am I right?

And no. Nothing made any difference. I was just miserable. The more I thought about how miserable I was, the more miserable things were. I found bugs in the beds (seriously? Gross me out the door), dirt on the floors (okay, so this is every day, all day), clutter on every conceivable living space in my house (ditto). I couldn’t seem to get out of the kitchen for the life of me, one project led to another and then to another and so on. By noon, I was hot, sweaty and tired. I felt a headache coming on. And I was just ready to throw in the towel.

I might have thrown in the towel. There have been a lot of towels going through my washing machine lately. But at the end of the day, I went to bed, only to wake up again this morning. And I discovered something. I have a lot to be thankful for in this little house of mine. This little world I call my own.

What a difference a day makes.

Nothing in my environment really changed with the dawning of this new day. Same house, same mess, same people. It’s just that here we are together again- in this brand new beautiful day. We are alive, we are together…and we’re here. And what’s not to love about a fresh start? This is not to say that feeling frustrated and discouraged is wrong or shameful. It’s just to say that it is not really much fun. It’s actually depressing. And so I choose today- joy. Joy, and peace and contentment. I choose to see all that I have as the gift it is, rather than as the burden it might seem to be. I choose to see what I have been given as delight rather than trouble. And in so doing, I find myself feeling more and more content.

In so doing, I find myself satisfied.

So today, I am satisfied for the fact that I found no bugs in my bed. Score. Satisfied again because I wasn’t baking anything today- I bought a store-bought cake for precious Sarah- and she loved every bite of it. Score again. And I got to race my Husband and beat him FOUR TIMES ON THE WATERSLIDES. Score, score score. And they say that three times is a charm.

It all is- it’s all a gift. And for all this and so much more- I’m satisfied

Lessons Learned {during playground duty}

His little body tells me he means business. He power-walks away from me, even as I call out his name: once, twice, thrice. And then some more. He hears me, but he’s trying not to listen. It is apparent that he perceives my constant calling for he moves purposefully ahead, making an ever-widening arch as he moves around the periphery of the playground.

Like he has somewhere to go.

I follow, but I do not run. And as I go about this awkward pursuit, I continue to call. While he continually moves out of my reach. We continue this dance-like charade until I get close enough for him to hear the calm in my voice. The care and the compassion. I call out again, indicating my desire to talk it out. Indicating my desire to listen. And this time, he allows me to catch up to him. I see, as I near, that he is fearful. Anxious. It’s been a long day, and it’s not even half over. He tells me what has happened. And indeed, his story matches up. He admits that first his mistake was accidental. But then he says “the bad stuff came.”

My heart aches for him.

It is a long road to travel when you are only five. Lonely and anxious and unsure.

Our schools are bursting with children that present with different needs and requirements. Some children come hungry: we feed them. Some children come filthy: we wash them, or teach them the ways to clean themselves. Some children come with precious little of material value to call their own: we provide clothing, backpacks, shoes, mittens, skates, splash pants and the like. Not to mention all the other stuff we offer that would seem to define us as teachers: reading, writing, ‘rithmetic. But what of the children who come lonely…what is there for them?

What do we offer the lonely?

The reason I feel I have stayed with teaching, why I continue in the classroom- has been for the little moments I have been given in which to gaze uninhibited inside the heart of students like the Boy in my story above. When the guard is lowered and I am allowed privileged glimpses into the depths of the soul: my own soul is fed. I am redeemed. Liberated to be the teacher I dream of being. For I want nothing more than to share in the journey. To share in the process of discovery. It is what keeps me here, inside the school milieu. It is what I love.

I have felt of late a certain sense of lacklustre in my teaching. A loss of passion. As an educator, I have been going through the motions, for lack of better words. The same routines, the same schedule. Even speaking the same uninspiring words as I facilitate learning from the teacher’s seat on the worn, blue mat. And although there has been nothing changed as far as the demands of my job, something has certainly changed somewhere. Somehow.

Within.

True, life is certainly busy and hectic, but not more so than any other moment. What I believed has changed is me. I have felt like I am losing interest, losing a sense of the significance for why I am here. For why I am where I am. I have lost my sense of place. And this loss has had the effect of causing me to feel that I am just putting time in each and every day. Biding the time until the day is over. Believing somehow that this is all there really is.

Until Friday. Until I looked into those sad, brown eyes last Friday.

The turning point for me personally was the opportunity I had to turn a mundane chore into an opportunity for possible transformation. And the while one would hope for transformation for those you assist in learning and growth, the real transformation was for me.

To elaborate. Outdoor duty is a time when teachers take their shift of playground supervision. It is invariably a time when tattle tale-ing hits with full force, while accompanying this rite of childhood is a fair bit of injury and sometimes blood. Two weeks ago, a little girl who already had a broken arm fell off the monkey bars on my watch. I had spoken to her just moments before, turned my back, and then she climbed up the monkey bars and promptly fell to the ground. One never knows what will happen on the playground.  It is both an exciting and terrifying venture at one and the same time.

Recess playtime is a bit unconventional when compared to school norms. Because the playground is a place where risks can be taken, where learning is done through play, where social interactions are at the forefront and where inhibitions can be lowered, play offers opportunity that the classroom doesn’t. But it is also a place where children can feel more vulnerable, for various reasons. Given that the duty teacher is only one person, and that the playground is a big place with seventy or eighty little people running around, a lot can go right. But often even more can go wrong.

What I have found about recess playtime is this. It is the greatest opportunity for me as a teacher to observe children in their most natural state. And added to this: I am at my most relaxed, feeling none of the pressures to meet outcomes or standards or to teach to differentiated learners. Kids love to play in all the same ways. It is very freeing as a teacher to be witness to this wonder. But my greatest joy has been in helping children who need a little extra love and understanding. It’s why I love duty the most.

When I see the opportunity to connect with children and use this time to enable them in their growth and development as individuals, I take it. I use duty to do what I really love to do: help children grow their hearts. That might be allowing an anxious child to travel with me around the playground, holding my clipboard. It might mean taking the time to settle a disagreement between two or more friends. Or what it is often becoming is a chance to observe students who are finding it difficult to connect with other students and thus making this time of supervision a chance for me to help these students solve both little and big problems, as they arise.

I’d like to say that the Boy had a better day after he and I chatted. I’d like to say that he came to a better understanding of himself and others as a result of the incident on the playground. I’d like to say that he resolved to find a way to connect more easily with other children and that he let down his defences. And I’d dearly like to say that the students involved with him were willing to wash the slate clean. I’d like to say that our infrequent encounters on the playground paved the way to continuous, visible growth in emotional and mental well-being for this young child. But the truth of the matter is: he had a very difficult afternoon, as I came to find out in speaking with his teacher.

And so it goes.

But this I know: no kindness goes unnoticed. And no thoughtful, caring gesture is soon forgotten. There will be other Fridays to come. More duty days in which to build his trust. And while there doubtless will be more incidents and pursuits, there will be small victories along the way. It’s a journey with a climb. Or maybe this process of learning is more like a building a house on a solid foundation. We are laying the framework, he and I. And it is not a race to perfection.

It’s a slow and steady process to building more awareness and understanding. And we all know- anything worth building takes lots and lots of time.  And love. Must never neglect the role of love in building the life of a child.

It’s what really matters.