We couldn't be more excited about the first issue of our monthly newsletter, Tales From The Toy Shop! Issue 1 features "The Right To PLAY" by magical human, Angelina Lloyd, M.EdPsy. She has been working and learning alongside young children for two decades. Angelina is the atelierista (studio teacher) and a lead Montessori teacher at Children’s Garden Montessori School in Denver, CO. She is an artist and Montessori certified teacher, actively exploring the philosophies of Reggio-Emilia. Angelina was my daughter's Art Studio Teacher at Children's Garden Montessori School in Denver, CO. She taught my family that art is everywhere, mistakes are a beautiful opportunity and that it is important to slow down, be present and PLAY! She is pure magic!! I am so honored to feature her writing and proud to call her my friend. Enjoy!
The Right To PLAY- Angelina Lloyd M.EdPsy
Welcome to our school. There is a hum of activity, as children busily work on rolled rugs or at small tables, using materials carefully prepared for them by Montessori teachers trained to ensure that each detail is attended to with learning in mind. Indoor and outdoor environments, rich in beauty and natural materials, flourish with plants and enticing objects. It is an atmosphere designed to cultivate inquiry and peace. I’ve taught in similar Montessori classrooms for many years. But here, woven through our days, the children can be found building dinosaur habitats with wooden blocks, creating living fairy gardens and telling elaborate stories to accompany characters made from found objects. We are a Montessori school that takes inspiration from the early learning philosophies of Reggio-Emilia, Italy. For us, expressive languages have equal dignity with reading, writing and arithmetic. As you may imagine, any school actively engaging two distinct philosophical approaches is a school constantly undergoing a process of reflection, transformation and evolution. This continues to be the case with play, something a bit less familiar in Montessori than Reggio inspired classrooms. As educators, we follow the children and what they have taught us about play could help us all to navigate the topsy, turvy times we are in with resilience and joy.
We inhabit a culture increasingly dominated by busy schedules, technology and planned activities amidst an ever changing social landscape. We face new challenges and are met with no small degree of uncertainty. Children the world over are asked to spend more and more time in front of a screen, when play and creative expression are more necessary than ever before. So how can we support play, in school and at home, without sacrificing academic expectations and standards? How might we, alongside our children, meet the demands of the moment and have fun doing it? I have some ideas, gleaned from the children, on how to live in this moment, exactly as it is, with playful abandon.
In the United States there is growing pressure on schools to demonstrate results and academic gains. With this increasing demand to perform, schools tend to favor systematic, heavily academic instruction. This means that parents and school systems often focus on assessment and structured approaches to education, assuming that these procedures will assure academic success. As a Montessori preschool teacher, I know literacy and numerical awareness can evolve naturally from active engagement within a prepared classroom. Just yesterday a child ran up to me and exclaimed with delight, “Angelina I am reading! I’m reading! Listen!” She had been writing words for weeks but had just figured out she could also decode them! Montessori environments are like that, rich with invitations to learn and discover. Here children progress through a series of Montessori materials and lessons which scaffold a child’s learning in such a way that most of our children are reading and doing mathematical operations with confidence before they go on to kindergarten. But the end is not the goal, the process is. The joy of learning is our success. There is, however, an area of childhood that is often overlooked by by Montessori and traditional schools alike, and that is unstructured, unplanned, open-ended opportunities to play and collaborate.
Pandemic or no, children seem to have less and less time to engage in free, open ended and unstructured play. Why? Perhaps in part because unstructured play is by definition unpredictable. And as adults when we are not in control, we are not comfortable. We want to keep our children safe and we don’t want our homes or schools to unravel into anarchy. We also don’t want our children to fall behind. Behind what? Anything. And play, while fun, is often viewed as purposeless and as adults we prioritize purposeful activity. Yet play is essential to human development. And nature doesn’t make things intrinsic to a species unless it serves a purpose.
All mammals play (and many non-mammals too!) but humans have the longest childhoods, and thus opportunities for play, of any other species. Why? Current research suggests that these prolonged periods of play are responsible for our big old neocortex. Our brains are always forming and pruning synaptic connections but in early childhood we are making more connections than are pruned. The young child’s brain is changing with each new experience. As we get on in years our brains aren’t as plastic but we are better at doing the things we do. The good news is that we can keep forming new connections throughout our life. How? Well one tried and true method is to keep playing. Play is linked to neuroplasticity as well as a positive sense of purpose and well being. Who would have guessed it? Turns out play is key to our development across the years.
When children play they get to rehearse imaginary scenarios amidst a backdrop of reality. Adults do this too, often at three in the morning, in the less playful form of worry. Why? Once again, we like to feel a sense of control and all too often life reminds us that control is a comforting illusion. Here we can learn alot from our children, who engage the unknown with joyful immersion. Together they learn what is socially acceptable and what isn’t through group play. In rough and tumble play, children learn to take risks, test social limits and develop empathy. This play is linked to emotional regulation and the ability to control aggressive impulses and yet there is no other play more stymied by adults than battle play. As it turns out, play is linked to learning in every way imaginable. Through it, we cultivate an ability to think outside the box and come up with innovative answers to life's perplexing questions. Play is intrinsic, like hunger and breathing. You can be assured that a child who has their basic survival needs met will play.
As teachers we learn and keep learning to listen to children’s interests. We observe play, keeping in mind that it is an expression and experience of learning. And after years of playing and learning from them, we’ve gleaned some useful pointers on how to support their right to play AND to rekindle your own.
Try incorporating open ended materials alongside more traditionally instructional materials. When you do children get the message that play matters.Keep it simple. We adopt a less is more approach. When possible choose open-ended and natural materials over media-hyped toys.
- Have some play rules, we do. They’re pretty straightforward and hinge on respect. Respect for yourself, one another, the environment and the materials. If blocks are thrown or carelessly knocked into disarray, children are invited to put their work away.
- A child who can take out a work, can put it away. (Expect some push back if this isn’t how you have been doing things. ) Keep it simple and manageable. If putting out legos, consider putting out a smaller amount in a bucket on a shelf with the challenge, “What can you build using all of these?”
- Create learning challenges: If your child enjoys playing with trains and tracks try removing most of them. When your child notices they are gone, sympathize with their frustration at not having them and ask them how they might solve the problem. Here creative expression will come to the rescue. The recycling bin is always a good resource, soon empty toilet paper rolls might be rolling down the track.
- Boredom is your friend. It is part of the play cycle: Play...Bored...Practical Activities/Traditional Learning… Bored… Play again.
- Observe, observe, observe and as a rule of thumb, don’t interrupt a child engaged in concentrated activity and feel free to invite a child to clean up and transition if play becomes destructive.
When our own right to play is ignored our outlook on life tends to darken and feel rote and less satisfying. Play allows us to look at circumstances and challenges with fresh eyes. We can’t play all the time. We are adults and we have to ensure food collection and secure shelter for ourselves and families. But if we stop playing altogether our behaviors become fixed, our thinking less resilient and we lose our interest in the novelty of the moment. Plus, research suggests that play will increase immune function. That’s something we could all use right now!!!
How to get your play on:
- We don’t all play the same way. I love hiking for hours on end alone in the woods, for others that might be a whole lot of exercise without the fun. So figure out how you play by reflecting on how you played as a child. I was happiest alone in nature, making art. So it’s no wonder I love those things still. Rediscover your play history and rekindle your sense of fun.
- Get moving… Play is learning in motion. So try taking a short walk, or better yet a playful skip, to prime your joy.
- Play with pets or children, they always seem to know what to do.
- Once you’ve got the ball rolling, reconsider how you played as a child paying particular attention to how you felt doing it. Now feel that. Seriously, linger in the felt memory of play. Once you have that feeling it becomes your northstar. Gently, playfully, look for ways to invite that back into your life.
- And it’s important to note that the work you will find most fulfilling is often an extension of your childhood play. I don’t ask children what they want to be when they grow up. I ask them how they want to feel. That’s key to a well met life.
All modalities of learning and expression have the power to inform one another. When we make room for play we begin to see the depth of learning that can underlie the simplest of childhood experiences. Play is a quality of the human experience and every bit as valuable as reading, writing or arithmetic ever could be. In watching children and honoring their play I have come to understand that each child is truly capable and uniquely competent to make sense of the world. More inspiring than all of this, perhaps, is that the child engages this complex task of human development within a framework of fun. That is something all of us could learn from.
Man is the most insane species. He worships an invisible God and destroys a visible Nature. Unaware that the Nature he is destroying is the God he is worshipping.