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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Learn Through Play

"I'm a frog, mama, I'm a frog...riddit, riddit...I need flies!"

Cue two babies hopping around on all fours. Soon one of the frogs finds a toy dog on the floor.

"Uh oh!" she says. "Bad dog, bad dog, bite frog!"

"Oh no!" her sister yells. "No dog, no! Go away dog! No biting!"

In an instant, one has gone from a frog to a dog and wreaks havoc upon her slimy friend.

"Mama, help me! Save me, save me!"

The frog clambers up onto my lap, no longer a frog, but a simple victim of a dog attack.

"We're safe now," I say. "Dog is gone."

Upon hearing my words, the dog wanders away, to plan its next assault. The victim does what she would normally do when she feels safe and comforted.  She sleeps.

"Shornk shoo.  Shornk shoo." She pretends to snore.  "Oh no! Mama! Dog coming!" The dog comes back with renewed strength and vigor.

"No, dog, no!" I say. "Baby, get Superman! Only he can save us."

The little one runs to the toy box, expertly avoiding the dog.  "Whoosh, whoosh! Superman!" She comes back triumphant, with the superhero in hand. The dog, understanding it's been beaten, retreats behind the wall.

Over the past few months, this house has gone through a revolution of the imagination. Games like these can evolve and sustain themselves throughout the day. My children have gone from wanting a sponge to be a hat and tantruming over it, to knowing a sponge is not a hat, and pretending it is anyway.

I'm not trained in any cognitive sciences, but I've been more proud of their blossoming imaginations than any other developments thus far. Yes, they can tell me their letters and numbers, but I've never seen them as fully engaged as when they are submerged in play.  Their games expose the inner workings of their minds and environment. Through them, I am able to see the world as they are learning to see it. And with each day that goes by, the games get more sophisticated, more complicated.  I'm a proud mom, but I didn't know why.

How validated I felt when I read this article.  It suggests that children hone their mental skills through play and imaginative games, and that this education is more valuable than anything learned by rote as if by duty.

The question becomes, why do we stop encouraging this in our children's daily lives as they get older?  It's as if, suddenly, when they hit seven or eight, we adults decide that they are ready to move on from imagination entirely, and we force memorization, logistics and critical thinking in a very structured way.  If a child, probably surprised and confused by the change, doesn't catch on, or acts out in rebellion, we punish.  Tests enforced by the federal government must be passed.  Everything is structured.  Everyone must learn in exactly the same way and know exactly the same things.  The minds we were helping to grow just a few years ago are now beaten back by the system, forced into channels they may not normally go.  The emphasis changes from loving to learn to learning to repeat. The brain is told to stop reaching for ideas not already given to us by those in charge. Children begin to learn how to give 'the right' answer, but in doing so, they have little time left to formulate their own conclusions.

More importantly, many of them stop enjoying education.

"Play is steadily losing out to what play proponents refer to as the "drill and kill" method. We drill more because they can't pay attention, but they can't pay attention because they don't have these underlying play skills, so we drill more,"  author Deborah J. Leong says. "It's pathetic."

Educators, too, are forced to work within this tiny 'acceptable' framework in order to achieve test scores that may or may not actually indicate the level of learning taking place in the classroom.  If every child were to receive 100 percent on these tests, all we would prove, in my opinion, is that we were able to completely squash individuality and creativity in favor of memorization. A learning without the learning, in fact, because all the memorization in the world will not help a child understand the building blocks of the theories behind the execution.

For now, my little princesses are safe from all this. 

When they do get to school, don't get me wrong, I hope they pass those tests with flying colors.  I also hope they never lose this originality they are starting to exhibit on a daily basis, in favor of adult approval.

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  1. So very true! I'm a new teacher and I've been struggling with this. Thankfully, as an elective teacher, I have a little more flexibility about what to teach and how to make things more creative/imaginative. :)

  2. I think I am different... lol. I have yet to squash that imagination and creativity in my kids. My oldest is 11.5 and still frequently runs around pretending to be things he is not... as does my 9-year old and my 6-year old! They do well in school academically, but the two boys do have some "behavioral" areas that "need support."

    You have such lovely princesses!



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