A Playful Challenge to Educators

by Stuart on April 25, 2010

When you look at the stars in the night sky, the light from those stars has taken millions of years to reach you. Many of those stars died long ago, and the light from new ones hasn’t reached us yet. The night sky is like a timescope, offering a picture of what once existed thousands and millions of years ago.
When you look into the eyes of a young child, you see a light that is coming not from the past, but reaching into the future; a fragile light that nevertheless has its own intelligence, in a universe being born right now. 


The United Fedeation of Teachers hosts annual conferences here in NYC every year. We have been invited to present our work at these events, and greatly enjoyed our workshop this year. Meeting the teachers, and engaging their deep commitment to their students welfare always provides an essential motivation for us.

This year the keynote address was given by Dr.  Regina Milteer, a pediatrician and author who advocates for the inclusion of play as an integral part of a child’s emotional and physical development. And since the research uneuivocally supports such a position, folks like Dr. Milteer are a welcome voice in our country’s never ending debate about theory and pedagological approaches. (You think we’d have gotten it right by now – but given that old, off-the-mark model of the brain teachers have been using, it’s really not surprising.)

One part of Dr. Milteer’s address that caught our attention,  in-between bites of a pretty good salmon lunch that Gwen could actually eat, was a tendency to encapsulate the ‘conflict’ between education’s administrators and  its teachers as an ‘us vs. them’;  i.e. advocates of play face stiff resistance from those terrible thinkers and planners emphasizing  math and literacy expertise at the expense of anything else.

The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in between. Yes, there are some profound blind spots in the way educational prioirites are established, particularly in public education systems. New York is a good example of this. Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein have, not surprisingly, pushed for gains in math and literacy as the gold standard in systemic improvement. Recess, drama, social skills, art and music are the ‘soft’ stuff we can get to later. It all sounds so wrong except for one fact – they’re right! The way the world is re-configuring itself, into the large economizc zones of the Americas, European Union etc., guarantees the rising of a global competitive ‘community’ as ruthless and unforgiving as any thirld world tyrant or corporate boardroom. And the types of jobs needed in those zones, some of which can be performed ‘virtually’, don’t care if someone enjoys music, writes poetry, or likes to draw. And in the hyper-competitive world of the future (which amazingly can only be stopped by a global financial meltdown), survival matters above all else. So, like it or not, folks like Bloomberg and Klein are correct in emphasizing barebones logic and comprehension skills for the students they are responsible for.

But that tunnel vision has an unfortunate, and terrible cost. Recent advances in neuroscience have shown that the development of the brain’s  pre-frontal cortex, the crucial ‘executive’ area of the brain, is dependent on a myriad of activities, many of which involve imagination, play, empathy, and self-awareness. Sadly, math practice and reading are solitary activities that fail to engage the brain’s need to network and develop. It’s one of the reasons that teachers often find a child in their class in September that apparently has not mastered the skills of the previous class. The student didn’t master the information – they prepared for a test. The information, since it doesn’t appear meaningful to their young lives, is eaily forgotten.

The dilemma before us then, is this; do we ignore the looming realities of the world’s economies and advocate for having more fun at school, or not? The answer we think, is to re-cognize the situation and realize that we are all, for better or worse, in the same boat. Reading and logic should not be pursued at the expense of play, but should be developed in an imaginative, playful, and socially intelligent style. And its really a win/win, because not only does the children’s development benefit , but we can use an intelligent approach to play to rejuvenate ourselves, and stay fresher throughout the year.  The kids aren’t the only oness who need to enjoy themselves during the week.

 This is a challenge to today’s educators and administrators. How to develop a students requisite skills for the 21st century at the same time that an empathic,  creative person is developing. Because besides churning out people who can employ the 3 r’s, we need to know our efforts are contributing to a better future, or really, what’s the point? And folks like the president, or the mayor, or the chancellor, can’t help us with that. It’s not, after all, what they do. It’s what we do.

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