Why is play so threatening?

Play seems so controversial when applied to the school setting, yet there seems to be a growing movement in the direction of play-based learning in primary schools in New Zealand. Why? And why does such a shift seem so threatening to some, yet is so readily welcomed by others?

This is a post begun just under a year ago (looks like I forgot to publish it). These are just my ponderings on the matter.

I reflect back on a comment I have heard on the matter – or rather, a question: “Isn’t that what we should be doing at home?” My automatic (though incomplete) response to that is “Well, yes.” Yet a more reflective response would refer back to the many statistics that I have read which suggest that opportunities for play at home are no longer what the once were (for many).

Does this mean the parents are doing something wrong, that bringing play based learning into school is the state psuedo parenting? I would argue absolutely not. Parents do an amazing job. The ones who make significant errors or outright poor decisions are the ones who end up on the news. But as with teachers, this is a false representation of the majority. I am yet to meet a parent who does not love their child and want their child to achieve the best that they can. Maybe I have just been lucky in that regard, but it is important to reflect on that because that is my perception of parents – as a whole, they love their kids and do their best for them.

So back to play opportunities…today’s world is simply not the world of yesteryear. The perception of crime as a whole is that it is increasing despite the many valient efforts to address it (I don’t have the statistics on that one to definitively argue either way). Perhaps we are simply more aware of it as the media advertise it through attention grabbing headlines, or because of the availability of knowledge on the internet. There are certainly more cars around, more expectations of what keeping your child safe constitutes – this is even seen in the number of kids who don’t walk to school but get a ride – for safety’s sake. Sending your children off to play at the start of the day and instructing them to ‘be back before dark’ would certainly be almost unconscionable for some – where were they? Were they safe? What is happening to them? How does one play cricket in the middle of the street with such an abundance of cars whizzing by? There are so many organised activities that can be participated in, the advent of social media and devices… the list is endless.

So things have changed at home and in the broader society – does this mean that schools are trying to do what parents should be? No. As teachers we are charged with identifying student needs and addressing them in order to support student success and to help them achieve their goals. And for many of our pupils play is simply the best means for doing this.

See, what is often missed (or at least appears that way to me) is the complexity of teaching. Even a skill like paying attention is not as simple as just obeying (usually). It requires the ability to self-regulate, to filter through noise and visual occurrences, identifying and blocking out the unrelated ones and zeroing in on the ones at hand. When this is not yet automatised, no amount of growling is going to achieve more than temporary compliance and frustration for both parties.

How much more complex then are the notions of focussing to learn to read, write or do math for early learners. Not only are you learning rather complex cognitive academic skills, some of which seem irrelevant to you (despite your teacher’s best efforts to contextualise the learning), but you are also trying to sit still, focus, pay attention, tune out distractions. If we are to address the needs of the learner adequately, teachers need to look at the whole picture and make professional pedagogical decisions to support the learning.

This isn’t about a blame game, or a one-size fits all approach. This is about making professional decisions and supporting learning. Learning might just look different to before.

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