“I invented a new swear word…”
“Is it C-R-A-P,” I spell out loud,to see if he’s paying any attention.
“No!” Curious I ask, “what is it?”
“CRIT,” he proudly states.
“Who taught you that I ask?” “You don’t want to know,” and he takes off to reunite with his friends in the school yard.
I’d have to admit it is quite clever.
I admit I have not been posting original material here for quite some time, as I have been playing with too many projects lately. (I know…this Punk player is a real lame duck, just preaching the play and workin all the time.) And the next project is due for grad school by early next week. But, I do intend on using these great resources I have been collecting, due to my ambitiously supportive advisor, and pass it along to my dear readers. This is a must read for us adults. However here’s my disclaimer: You may not want to read this piece near the office, as it may send you running for the beach and in lost of a job.
Most of us think of adult play as respite or indulgence, but having fun is no trivial pursuit. In fact, it’s crucial to put mental creativity, health and happiness. Say the words and they conjure the gentle tickle of waves against the shore, the harder kick of surf dashing against rocks, the slap of spray against heated skin. For most of us, the place where earth meets ocean is the very essence of play—antic, full of novelty and joyful abandon. At the beach, we are all children. As we gambol in the shallow surf and toss in the deeper waves, we feel the freedom of helplessness and the satisfaction of improvising defenses. Unburdened by consciousness or self-consciousness, we are caught in the moment. Suffused with pleasure, we exult in the sheer lightness of being.
Yet, as welcome and wonderful as those feelings are, play’s value among adults is too often vastly underrated. We would all agree that play lifts stress from us. It refreshes us and recharges us. It restores our optimism. It changes our perspective, stimulating creativity. It renews our ability to accomplish the work of the world. By anyone’s reckoning, those are remarkably worthy achievements.
But there is also evidence that play does much more. It may in fact be the highest expression of our humanity, both imitating and advancing the evolutionary process. Play appears to allow our brains to exercise their very flexibility, to maintain and even perhaps renew the neural connections that embody our human potential to adapt, to meet any possible set of environmental conditions.
And it may be that playfulness is a force woven through our search for mates. Certainly, playful people are the most fun to be around. But the ability to play may be a strong and appealing signal of something more. Especially among males, playfulness can protect us. It may be a way to indicate to potential partners that a man is not a threat to himself, to his offspring—or to society at large.
It can truly be said that we are made for play; after all, humans are among the very few animals that play as adults. What the evidence adds up to is this: we are most human when we play—and just because we play.
Like art, play is that quintessential experience that is almost impossible to define—because it encompasses infinite variability—but which we all recognize when we see, or experience. So let us go back to the beach in an attempt to understand all that contributes to such a necessary, and exalted, psychological state.
The beach is, above all else, Somewhere Else, far enough away from home, office, and everyday routines in character and distance. That dislocation sets the stage for us to be attuned to the moment, to relax our focus on long-term goals.
Being at the beach invariably forces a measure of spontaneity. We bring few of our usual possessions and tools. We are forced to recline, stretch out, relax.
If the sand and the water offer their own endless cache of novelty, the sun draws our attention to them. And it cossets us, taking tension out of our bodies with its warmth. Then, too, there is the novelty of (relative) nudity. It renders us all childlike and opens us to the enjoyment of sensations. It renders us ready to play.
I wanted to catch some of my students in the glory and fantasy of battle play. What I find most interesting about this particular interaction is the gender cross over.
The Serious Need for Play was originally published in the Scientific American Mind by By Melinda Wenner. This is a must read that examines the seriousness of play.
On August 1, 1966, the day psychiatrist Stuart Brown started his assistant professorship at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, 25-year-old Charles Whitman climbed to the top of the University of Texas Tower on the Austin campus and shot 46 people. Whitman, an engineering student and a former U.S. Marine sharpshooter, was the last person anyone expected to go on a killing spree. After Brown was assigned as the state’s consulting psychiatrist to investigate the incident and later, when he interviewed 26 convicted Texas murderers for a small pilot study, he discovered that most of the killers, including Whitman, shared two things in common: they were from abusive families, and they never played as kids. Brown did not know which factor was more important. But in the 42 years since, he has interviewed some 6,000 people about their childhoods, and his data suggest that a lack of opportunities for unstructured, imaginative play can keep children from growing into happy, well-adjusted adults. “Free play,” as scientists call it, is critical for becoming socially adept, coping with stress and building cognitive skills such as problem solving. Research into animal behavior confirms play’s benefits and establishes its evolutionary importance: ultimately, play may provide animals (including humans) with skills that will help them survive and reproduce. Most psychologists agree that play affords benefits that last through adulthood, but they do not always agree on the extent to which a lack of play harms kids—particularly because, in the past, few children grew up without ample frolicking time. But today free play may be losing its standing as a staple of youth. According to a paper published in 2005 in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, children’s free-play time dropped by a quarter between 1981 and 1997. Concerned about getting their kids into the right colleges, parents are sacrificing playtime for more structured activities. As early as preschool, youngsters’ after-school hours are now being filled with music lessons and sports—reducing time for the type of imaginative and rambunctious cavorting that fosters creativity and cooperation. A handful of studies support Brown’s conviction that a play-deprived childhood disrupts normal social, emotional and cognitive development in humans and animals. He and other psychologists worry that limiting free play in kids may result in a generation of anxious, unhappy and socially maladjusted adults. “The consequence of a life that is seriously play-deprived is serious stuff,” Brown says. But it is never too late to start: play also promotes the continued mental and physical well-being of adults. Worries over the demise of play began surfacing as far back as 1961, when the International Play Association was founded in Denmark to protect, preserve and promote play as a fundamental right for all children. But the idea became more popular a little over a decade ago, when many more nonprofit foundations—such as the National Institute for Play in Carmel Valley, Calif., started by Brown, and other organizations, including the Alliance for Childhood and the Association for the Study of Play—began forming around the globe to promote the value of play and to raise concerns over its demise. Freedom Counts But kids play soccer, Scrabble and the sousaphone—so why are experts concerned that these games and more structured activities are eating into free play? Certainly games with rules are fun and sources of learning experiences—they may foster better social skills and group cohesion, for instance, says Anthony D. Pellegrini, an educational psychologist at the University of Minnesota. But, Pellegrini explains, “games have a priori rules—set up in advance and followed. Play, on the other hand, does not have a priori rules, so it affords more creative responses.” This creative aspect is key because it challenges the developing brain more than following predetermined rules does. In free play, kids use their imagination and try out new activities and roles. The child initiates and creates free play. It might involve fantasies—such as pretending to be doctors or princesses or playing house—or it might include mock fighting, as when kids (primarily boys) wrestle and tumble with one another for fun, switching roles periodically so that neither of them always wins. And free play is most similar to play seen in the animal kingdom, suggesting that it has important evolutionary roots. Gordon M. Burghardt, author of The Genesis of Animal Play, spent 18 years observing animals to learn how to define play: it must be repetitive—an animal that nudges a new object just once is not playing with it—and it must be voluntary and initiated in a relaxed setting. Animals and children do not play when they are undernourished or in stressful situations. Most essential, the activity should not have an obvious function in the context in which it is observed—meaning that it has, essentially, no clear goal. Face Time How do these seemingly pointless activities benefit kids? Perhaps most crucially, play appears to help us develop strong social skills. “You don’t become socially competent via teachers telling you how to behave,” Pellegrini says. “You learn those skills by interacting with your peers, learning what’s acceptable, what’s not acceptable.” Children learn to be fair and take turns—they cannot always demand to be the fairy queen, or soon they have no playmates. “They want this thing to keep going, so they’re willing to go the extra mile” to accommodate others’ desires, he explains. Because kids enjoy the activity, they do not give up as easily in the face of frustration as they might on, say, a math problem—which helps them develop persistence and negotiating abilities. Keeping things friendly requires a fair bit of communication—arguably the most valuable social skill of all. Play that transpires with peers is the most important in this regard. Studies show that children use more sophisticated language when playing with other children than when playing with adults. In pretend play, for instance, “they have to communicate about something that’s not physically present, so they have to use complicated language in such a way that they can communicate to their peer what it is that they’re trying to say,” Pellegrini explains. For example, kids can’t get away with just asking, “Vanilla or chocolate?” as they hand a friend an imaginary cone. They have to provide contextual clues: “Vanilla or chocolate ice cream: Which one would you like?” Adults, on the other hand, fill in the blanks themselves, making things easier for kids. If play helps children become socialized, then lack of play should impede social development—and studies suggest that it does. According to a 1997 study of children living in poverty and at high risk of school failure, published by the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation in Ypsilanti, Mich., kids who enrolled in play-oriented preschools are more socially adjusted later in life than are kids who attended play-free preschools where they were constantly instructed by teachers. By age 23, more than one third of kids who had attended instruction-oriented preschools had been arrested for a felony as compared with fewer than one tenth of the kids who had been in play-oriented preschools. And as adults, fewer than 7 percent of the play-oriented preschool attendees had ever been suspended from work, but more than a quarter of the directly instructed kids had. Animal studies lend support to the idea that play deprivation leads to poor social skills. According to a study published in 1999 in Behavioural Brain Research, rats that are kept isolated during the two weeks of development when they most frequently play—the fourth and fifth weeks after birth—are much less socially active when they later encounter other rats as compared with rats that are not isolated during the same two-week period. And a study published in Developmental Psychobiology in 2002 revealed that male rats reared in isolation during their youth fail to display normal avoidance behaviors when introduced to dominant male rats that repeatedly attack them. Could play deprivation specifically cause these behavioral problems—or could social isolation in general have been the culprit? Another study suggests that play promotes neural development in “higher” brain areas involved in emotional reactions and social learning. Scientists reported in 2003 that play fighting releases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF)—a protein that stimulates the growth of new neurons—in these regions. The researchers allowed 13 control rats to play freely with companions for three and a half days and kept 14 other rats isolated for the same period. On examining the rats’ brains, the researchers found that the cortex, hippocampus, amygdala and pons of the rats that had played contained much higher levels of BDNF than those of the rats that had not. “I think play is the major mechanism whereby higher regions of the brain get socialized,” says Washington State University neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, who co-authored the study. Stress Relief Research suggests that play is also critical for emotional health, possibly because it helps kids work through anxiety and stress. In a 1984 study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, researchers assessed the anxiety levels of 74 three- and four-year-old children on their first day of preschool as indicated by their behavior—whether they pleaded, whined and begged their parents to stay—and how much their palms were sweating. Based on the researchers’ observations, they labeled each child as either anxious or not anxious. They then randomly split the 74 kids into four groups. Half of the kids were escorted to rooms full of toys, where they played either alone or with peers for 15 minutes; the other half were told to sit at a small table either alone or with peers and listen to a teacher tell a story for 15 minutes. Afterward, the kids’ levels of distress were assessed again. The anxiety levels of the anxious kids who had played had dropped by more than twice as much as compared with the anxious kids who had listened to the story. (The kids who were not anxious to begin with stayed about the same.) Interestingly, those who played alone calmed down more than the ones who played with peers. The researchers speculate that through imaginative play, which is most easily initiated alone, children build fantasies that help them cope with difficult situations. Animal studies also support the idea that play helps to alleviate stress—a concept known in neuroscience as social buffering. In a study published in 2008, Gettysburg College neuroscientist Stephen Siviy put rats into a chamber by themselves and exposed them to a collar previously worn by a cat, which made them visibly anxious. Later, the chamber was cleaned so it no longer smelled of the cat, the rats were put back in without the cat collar, and the rats immediately became anxious again, probably because they associated the space with the cat. But if Siviy and his colleagues then introduced another rat into the chamber—one that had never been exposed to the cat collar and was not afraid—the two would begin playing by chasing each other, tumbling and pretend fighting. And shortly thereafter, the first rat would relax and become calm, suggesting that play helped the rat to lessen its anxiety. Play to the Head of the Class Relieving stress and building social skills may seem to be obvious benefits of play. But research hints at a third, more counterintuitive area of influence: play actually appears to make kids smarter. In a classic study published in Developmental Psychology in 1973, researchers divided 90 preschool children into three groups. One group was told to play freely with four common objects—among the choices were a pile of paper towels, a screwdriver, a wooden board and a pile of paper clips. A second set was asked to imitate an experimenter using the four objects in common ways. The last group was told to sit at a table and draw whatever they wanted, without ever seeing the objects. Each scenario lasted 10 minutes. Immediately afterward, the researchers asked the children to come up with ideas for how one of the objects could be used. The kids who had played with the objects named, on average, three times as many nonstandard, creative uses for the objects than the youths in either of the other two groups did, suggesting that play fosters creative thinking. Play fighting also improves problem solving. According to a paper published by Pellegrini in 1989, the more elementary school boys engaged in rough-housing, the better they scored on a test of social problem solving. During the test, researchers presented kids with five pictures of a child trying to get a toy from a peer and five pictures of a child trying to avoid being reprimanded by his mother. The subjects were then asked to come up with as many possible solutions to each social problem; their score was based on the variety of strategies they mentioned, and children who play-fought regularly tended to score much better. Pellegrini does question, however, how much cause and effect one can glean from these studies. “What does play do? Is it the vanguard of learning something—so does play precede those sorts of skills—or is it merely practice or consolidation of skills that are already developing?” he asks. Although no one knows, “either way, at some level, it would be beneficial,” he concludes. Does lack of play, then, impede the development of problem-solving skills? Perhaps, according to animal studies. In a paper published in Developmental Psychobiology in 1978, experimenters separated young rats by mesh partitions—they could see, smell and hear other rats but could not play with them—for the 20 days during development when they would have most frequently played. The researchers taught these rats, and a group that had been allowed to play without constraints, to pull a rubber ball out of the way to get a food treat. A few days later they switched the setup so the rats would have to push the same ball to get the treat. The isolated rats took much longer to try new approaches, and thus solve the problem, than did the rats that had played. The authors speculate that through play, animals learn to try new things, and animals that do not play simply do not acquire this same behavioral flexibility. Playing also appears to help with language development, according to a 2007 study in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. Researchers at the University of Washington gave a box of toy blocks to children from middle- and low-income families aged 18 months to two and a half years. Parents of these kids, as well as parents of a similar group of kids who had no blocks, kept track of how often the children played. After six months, the kids who had played with blocks scored significantly higher on language tests than the others did. The researchers are not sure, however, whether these improvements resulted from playing with blocks per se—because by playing with blocks, the youngsters were spending less time in unproductive activities such as watching television. But why might play help kids excel? Animal researchers believe that play serves as a kind of training for the unexpected. “Play is like a kaleidoscope,” says evolutionary biologist Marc Bekoff of the University of Colorado at Boulder, in that it is random and creative. The bottom line, he posits, is that play encourages flexibility and creativity that may, in the future, be advantageous in unexpected situations or new environments. Some child psychologists, such as Tufts University child development expert David Elkind, agree. Play is “a way in which children learn,” Elkind says, “and in the absence of play, children miss learning experiences.” Let Loose If play is so crucial, what happens to children who are not playing enough? Ultimately, no one knows—but many psychologists are worried. Because play is somewhat risky—animals that are not alert and watchful are at risk of being attacked by predators—it probably evolved and persists because it confers survival advantages. “If it wasn’t important, it wouldn’t have evolved in its elaborate form,” Bekoff says. Indeed, evidence indicates that play is evolutionarily quite ancient. Rats that have had their neocortex removed—a large brain region that is involved in higher-order thinking such as conscious thought and decision making—still engage in normal play, which suggests that play motivation comes from the brain stem, a structure that precedes the evolution of mammals. “This means that the core, genetically-provided circuitry for play is situated in very ancient regions of the brain,” explains Panksepp, who led the experiment in 1994. Of course, many parents today believe they are acting in their kids’ best interests when they swap free play for what they see as valuable learning activities. Some mothers and fathers may also hesitate to let their kids play outside unattended, and they may fret about the possibility of the scrapes and broken bones that sometimes arise during play fighting or rambunctious fantasy play, says Sergio M. Pellis, a behavioral neuroscientist at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta. Although those instincts are natural, protecting kids “simply defrays those costs to later, when those same children will have difficulty in dealing with an unpredictable, complex world,” Pellis says. “A child who has had a rich exposure to social play experiences is more likely to become an adult who can manage unpredictable social situations.” Parents should let children be children—not just because it should be fun to be a child but because denying youth’s unfettered joys keeps kids from developing into inquisitive, creative creatures, Elkind warns. “Play has to be reframed and seen not as an opposite to work but rather as a complement,” he says. “Curiosity, imagination and creativity are like muscles: if you don’t use them, you lose them.”
I can’t help myself but to allow sticks to enter into games and play. No one has lost an eye…knock on wood… But what is real play, without some risk?
“I’m a dog…and if you pull my paw… I fart in your face.”
Words of wisdom from a five year old playing “dogs.” But, don’t worry, she said she was just pretending. Maybe this one was inspired by a particular book?
This is an except from a larger body of work.
The free school movement during the counter cultural stir of the 60’s and 70’s, with a significant impact even today is a result of highly authoritarian and hierarchal systems of governance that provoked families to seek out more local participatory democracy more reflective of their values and ideals. Families disillusioned by what public schools have to offer during the time of the free school movement, instead sought out educational alternatives with a fondness for spontaneity, freedom, staying true to their ideals and values (Miller, 2002).
Free Schools have been around for countless years, before the dawning of governmental schooling and always sprouting from the heart of community. The attractiveness of free schools is that they can rise and wane, reconstruct themselves, and transform into the genuine needs of children and the community. There are key aspects to democratic free schools that can be of inspiration to those who have suffered from conventional schooling. Free schools are non-compulsory, non-hierarchal, non-coercive, play friendly and do not administer grades. Some of these qualities in education revolving around free schools have been of influence to the public school sphere, either through homeschool network services, educational camps, drop-in centers, or other alternative approaches against the grain of compulsion. However there are many alternatives within the state system of education where parents, teachers, and students have worked hard to have more control over the decisions of the school. And I don’t want to discount the importance of when a public school finds creating ways for “maladjustment,” and collaborate in opposing some of the injustices and inequalities, while insuring that students, parents, and teachers have more of a say in the daily governing of a school. I do however think that the idea of each distinct community having full governance over their school has deep imbedded roots in democratic free schools.
A brief history of democratic free schools
Free schools also have a historical connection to the Modern School movement started by Francisco Ferrer in Spain in 1901 when he opened La Escuela Moderna. By 1906 “thirty-four schools with over 1,000 students were directly or indirectly influenced by the school and its textbooks. (Register of Francisco Ferrer Collection, MSS 0248).” Ferrer’s worked to free youth from the hegemonic grip of state schools (Hern, 2003). A quote in Field Day, Getting Society Out of Schools by Ferrer, sums up the uniqueness of the Modern School in comparison to the schools that operated on a regimented designed curricula. “Since we are not educating for a specific purpose, we can not determine the capacity or incapacity of a child.” Ferrer, a highly outspokenly critic of state dominating schooling suggests that such a education model offers nothing more than “enslavement” for the purpose of molding perfected labors. After being arrested for the second time for suspicion of conspiring to assassinating the King during a period of mass surge of political protest in Spain, Ferrer was detained and then executed before a firing squad. However the Modern School would continue to be influential with the support of Emma Goldman and other leading anarchists. Many who started progressive schools such as A.S Neil with Summerhill in England have been inspired by the work of Ferrer and the Modern School movement.
William Goldwin’s, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793) and the publication of The Enquirer (1797) where some of the first of its kind, against nationalizing education. Goldwin presented the case that “national schooling would always subordinate those goals to larger political interests,” and that real education would come from the pursuits of “truth and justice. (Hern, 2003).”
Leo Tolstoy a Christian activist started the school Yasnaya Polyana for peasant children. Tolstoy would objected to the highly authoritarianism around the schools he visited in Germany, Swiss, and English schools and that the matter of education belonged in the hands of family:
I am convinced that the school should not interfere in matters of education that belong to the family; that the school does not and should not have the right to reward and punish; that the best policy and administration of a school consists in granting students full freedom to study, and to settle their disputes as they see fit (Tolstoy 83).
Tolstoy firmly believed in individualism and that youth have the right to freely choose what they want to learn through various interests and curiosities, without being compelled by the purposes of other outside unnatural influences. At Yasnaya Polyana no lesson or instruction was given and was adamant about not interfering even among the disorder, as we would need to be patient in order for it to settle and allow time for genuine learning.
There are many off shoots in the roots of schools like the Modern School and free schools that have provided a cultural hub for activism, nurturing, social responsibility and centeredness on youth have leadership. These are schools that do not necessarily subscribe to a particular model or template when it comes to governing their school, often may be experimental, and usually comes from the ingenuity of creative individuals that make up the group they comprise as school. In away a school existing outside the framework of state schooling is distinctly fit to the needs of the community, and is run, by the community.
It is time to rethink the meaning and purpose of education for youth within our communities, as “the business of a school is not, or should not be, mere instruction, but the life of a child (Dennison, 1960).” Most can agree that the majority of meaningful education has occurred throughout our lives, often in or around the family home, most notable when not interrupted, when free of obligatory strings attached, and when entrusted by adults to take full responsibility of one’s own learning. And some how, unexplainable through inquiry, reflection, experimentation, play, and a continuum of experiences; we can find great liberty in figuring it out on our own, without little, if any, needed instruction.
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