A Thesis Thing:Free Play and Democractic Education for A Better World

Schools today don’t play fair. We’re on a crooked path educationally because of an addictive dependency on academics. Unmistakably our reliance on experts, instruction, and anything curricula related has caused a destructive path to our society and the way in which we relate to each other and the natural world. We’re an “uptight” and “rigid” society that has almost forgotten how to play.

Our traditional school system in archaic, unsustainable, and fails at preparing students as citizens to take utmost responsibility with their education and in facing the critical issues and concerns of our times. Play barely makes the class schedule or curriculum agenda. Little time in schools is devoted towards providing non-structured and uninterrupted activities for kids to freely choose. Conventional schools have the home field advantage on academics and play is usually the first to be ejected, suspended, cut from the budget or other wise broken up into chunks of time on the school bell schedule, we call recess. Recess, a time when youth common freely play, has culturally become marginalized by the high demand of standardized testing, prescribed curricula, methodologies, and surveillance measures sprung forward from bureaucratic policies and demands. In school the pupil is “schooled” to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new. His imagination is “schooled” to accept service in place of value (Illich, 1972).” In a world of academics there is no balance, imagination, creativity, and our natural pull in childhood to freely play receives a crushing blow. The purpose of these pages is reexamine the value of free play as a trusting way for youth to follow their interests and guide themselves towards taking on more responsibilities.

The free play 1that I widely address throughout the following chapters, students have the freedom to choose their own activity or method of interacting with each other, materials, and can opt out of any prescribed curriculum, classes, or curricula. Free play is a simple principle of youth having choices about the activities they engage in, unfettered and uninterrupted by adults. In free play young people have the freedom to choice their own activities guided by one’s intrinsic interests and curiosities about the world. I have discovered in my personal experience and research that when schools have the courage to fuse free play with meaningful full participatory student governance then students become more engaged participants in school community. The problem is that our current school system has a long ways to go to resemble some of the core democratic principles, in which the U.S. was founded on.

The school system has failed miserable to uphold democratic principles. “Schools are intended to produce, through the application of formulas, formulaic human beings whose behavior can be predicted and controlled (Gatto, 2002, 23).” Schools were originally designed to run parallel with the demands of the factory or the precise calculation of the input and output of an assembly line. There are fundamental human principles and values that are amiss is our state public schools that not only fail to address our times, but can be repressive to our energies for creating, playing, and learning to live more democratically. Not that all teachers take up authoritarian and mechanical like order in the classroom, but the education system is designed to leave free play and democratically local governing of schools by students, parents, and teachers, at a dead last. I do not for a second rule out truly inspiring teachers that have a deep appreciation for children and allow a generous amount of time alloted to free play, but schools generally as a social institution has failed to portray a democratic model for students that promotes more free play. Wendell Berry author, farmer, and activist suggests that the industrial age of schooling be simply replaced with this next politically coined age of information, but one that takes on a different meaning.

The complexity of our present trouble suggests as never before that we need to change our present concept of education. Education is not primarily an industry and its proper use is not to serve industries, either by job-training or by industry-subsidized research. Its proper use is to enable citizens to live lives that are economically, socially, and culturally responsible. This cannot be done by gathering or “accessing” what we now call “information” – which is to say facts without context and therefore without priority. A proper education enables young people to put their lives in order, which means knowing what things are more important than other things; it means first things first (Berry, 2002).

This is a book about putting play as first thing first in childhood and not secondary to academic subjects. I want to bring into question any school design that simple indoctrinates whatever is shifting within economical and political interests, with a one size fits all ideology. This is outmoded thinking and design that has not serve the complexities of our times with oil gushing in deep seas at an unprecedented rate in the Gulf of Mexico, banks getting bailouts, a downward spiral in the economy, climate change, a war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the list goes on.

I’m not just suggesting that a school need to be “green” or “sustainable” or that a school offer a class in environmental education to be on par for course in cultivating socially responsible students that genuinely care about each other, equality, justice, human rights, and sustainability, but this is a start. But I think there are two human values that will enable us to get back on course to being utmost citizens and more responsible of our actions, one is free play and the other is a democratic process in our schools. The democratic process is a value that goes as far back (and further) before the infancy of our current school system and in which ordinary people met at town meetings to take on extraordinary responsibilities to build a democratic platform in our country. And play has been around since the dawn of human-kind.

This is a book is about examining what happens socially when free play becomes restricted, condemned, or not considered a meaningful part of learning in schools. This is also a book that explores democratic free schools as a not just an alternative to mainstream schooling, but a more sustainable and responsible way for youth to take ownership of their education and of their lives. And last but not least, this is a book that has been personally brewing for the past few year in two particular schools that put play in center of the curriculum – the Community School of West Seattle and more recently the Village Free School in Portland, Oregon. Both of these unique schools have reminded me of the power of play in our every day lives, as a means of fostering greater care, respect, and responsibility to each other and the natural world.

We’re living in new times that reflects some complex issues that can not simple be ignored or what Al Gore points to as the Inconvenient Truth. There is a common voice being echoed that there is a strong urge to put the breaks on burning up nonrenewable resources, on perpetual and preemptive wars, to stamp out all that is “wrong about the status-quo, to learn to consume less, conserve more resources, and organize our selves to generally live more sustainable. The problems socially are pressing, evident, inconvenient, but real across all partisans, religions, and social divides. My hopeful side would like to suggest that we’ve entered into a “sustainable age,” an age that puts nature first, rather than machines or production, and there is a growing awareness among the public to curb this idea as “business as usual.” But there is looming evidence among scientists, environmentalist, intellects, and the like that we’re on a destructive path that may not be reversed. How can we as adults and young people take better care of ourselves, the people around us, and the planet?

I believe schools can be grandiose places for experimenting with democracy to creatively prepare future generations, with students, teaches, and families involving themselves equally in the governance of their school, while at the same notion, honoring self-directed approaches to learning, as I commonly refer to throughout these pages, as free play. The movement to making school more playful and democratic is mainly the result of concerned families making responsible choices to get involved or to create schools that reflect more of their values. Families that recognize that taking a socially responsible stance moves beyond just casting a vote during another year election year, when one comes of age, but involves a clearer devotion to consciously share in community, expresses genuine interest in wanting to get involved, and makes important decisions governing their own lives.

No longer in our modern times can we afford to rely on schools that do not represent a democratic form of governance on a local level, and rank play last on the lesson plan. What I am calling for is for schools to operate with two main principles, free play and democratic governance, in that order. Free schools emerged in response to a destructive pattern of traditional schools in the 19th century. Today democratic free schools throughout the nation have an education philosophy built on equal relationships among students and teachers, freedom to choose activities (free play) and responsibility to govern the daily operations of the school. Free schools in general have withstood the test of time, and have embarked on creating environments honorable of free play and democratic governance. The challenges of this is not that there is one particular model that exists among democratic free schools that suits all communities, but there are two noticeable distinct principles in my research and personal experience among free schools, that I find give them a leg up for nurturing more humanistic, holistic, and democratic practices.

In the end we can look at democratic free schools as an educational alternative that strives to put individualism, self -directive learning, free play, and the democratic process front and center not only to optimizing learning, but for building more meaningful ways of engaging with each other and the world. There is a common thread among these schools that I find relevant to being experimental grounds, yet a reliable means for harnessing greater social responsibility.

When children have “opportunities to make decisions about their own learning and about daily life in their school communities, they show surprising maturity, creativity, and thoughtfulness (Miller, 73).” Throughout these chapters I will concentrate primarily on schools that I believe optimize the level of social responsibility among families, students, teachers, and community members. Schools that have committed to a democratic process that has been customized to meeting all the real needs, interests, of the students, parents, teachers, and active participants of the school community. Schools that also place much trust on free play, not just a means to improve cognitive ability and health, but as a substantial element for fostering independence, critical thinking, healthy conflict resolution, and caring response to others and the natural world.

There has been much evidence collected on the subject of free play (which I will address more of in Part 1) as brain boosting strategies to enhance the performance of youth in schools. My emphasis, is rather on the social attributes that emerge through free play, however I don’t dismiss the relevance of free play to cognitive and social development, nor do I discount some of this importance, but I think it would be a mistake not to delve deeper into this magic of play. Why is it that we’re a culture that puts all other subjects before play? And what is lost in an ideology that ranks play at the bottom of the school day “to do list”?

Let’s begin by examining some of the core systemic, social, and cultural obstacles in the way of free play. In later chapters we will look towards potential solutions in schools that may get us back on track through inviting more play and cultivating a democratic process honorable of creating greater social responsibility.

This is an excerpt from a grad. thesis I wrote. If your interested in obtaining the whole thesis as a PDF file with the purpose to distribute and share with care, please leave a comment:-)


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Hard at Work

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Caught with the Camera

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A Soft Song

I love taking short videos to see what magic flares up during free play. A song emerges from this moment. Yet, the play switches to a serious tone as they sit down to recite there is still a playful nature.

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Wade Again

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A Wading We Will Go

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Science and Color

Scouring the shelves of the curriculum closet I came across a “contraction” that had a tag on it that read: “For mixing, paint and potions.” This I thought, sounded mysterious and deserved to see the light of day. I thought I start with running water through the mechanical mixer just to see how it actually works. After testing it out, I thought it would be interesting to use this as a vehicle to introducing children to the the simple mechanics involving air, pressure, and water. And we added our own color to the water one could observe the actual flow of water as it channeled through the tubes. I still don’t think we used this apparatus as for what it is intended for, but without any directions included, we got to make this one up. I think the next time we will experiment with making paint and adding it directly to the their art work This should make for an interesting way of combining science with art!