The Power of Play
by Michael Zimmerman
“Play is the work of children” is a misleading platitude. An expression that suggests play is frivolous and needs the imprimatur of serious work.
Friends School Haverford teachers, particularly the teachers of our younger children, assert that our program is “play-based.” It is not a statement lightly made. It is an important characterization of what they are doing in their lives as teachers. It matters.
We take for granted that when such statements are uttered that we have a shared understanding of their meaning.
In life and learning, play and work are not opposites. If there is no play in your work, that is a problem. If your play is utterly unproductive, that too is a problem. In fact, play is a valuable context. When an activity is playful it is joyful. It is creative. There are elements of innovation, problem solving, and passion in it. When we work, we are serious, organized, and thoughtful. Both contexts are vital.
A lecture on celestial mechanics and how to determine the shortest distance between Earth and Mars would not engage students as effectively as inviting them to fly a simulated mission. I introduce them to the Solar System Live website where they can see the positions of the planets on any given date. Using this tool they soon discover that if you leave Earth on an 18-month journey to Mars when the two planets are closest to one another, the target planet is long gone by the time you arrive. Figuring out the lead-time for departure becomes paramount. Trial and error is a first strategy. Students are not just learning astrophysics. They are being astrophysicists in a developmentally appropriate way.
Mummifying chickens, building a coal mine, observing scientifically tan blobs found in the garden (that turned out to be praying mantis egg cases), exploring a multi-color sheen on the surface of standing water, engaging in microscopic analysis of critters found in leaf packs anchored in a nearby creek—these are but a few of the more obviously playful contexts of the serious work of learning at Friends School Haverford.
In a world in which much of the information we seek is as close as the phone we carry, it is that much more important to develop—
cognitive and language skills
dexterity and grace
the ability to collaborate
concepts of number and time
a sense of mastery
emotion awareness and management
—which, among others, are most effectively taught in a context that embraces the benefits of what we think of, and sometimes dismiss, as play.