You Can’t Skip Play

Roller skating

From trips to the local Jr. College for Chemistry Class, to studying Norse Mythology with students all over the continent, here at The Open School we can confidently say there’s been plenty of child-driven organized learning.

We’ve witnessed a trend where older students, particularly in their teen years, become increasingly interested in class-like study, but these classes might look different than what one might be used to. Instead of an adult leading instruction, the class might be made up of multiple aged students sharing information that interests them. Instead of one set curriculum, a staff member may cultivate a lesson geared towards the specific interests of one child. And while this sometimes looks like the desire to take a class, it also can look like personal research or watching tutorials online. Either way, students of a certain age tend to gravitate towards focused subjects that are easily recognizable as academic learning. 

The question is, how do children develop the desire and ability to create organized learning for themselves? While there are many factors that contribute, such as a maturing prefrontal cortex, one reason seems counter-intuitive: plenty of free play and unscheduled time.

The old model insists that children must be taught the discipline it takes to focus on a lesson, but from our point of view, unadulterated play is the obvious precursor towards inspired organized learning. This is because play is a form of organized learning. It’s just that this learning is often less perceptible to the adult eye, especially an adult who did not get the chance to develop through their own play process. Whether it’s learning how our actions affect others, settling disputes on the playground, or just feeling good doing what you love to do, play is a wellspring of education just how our biology intended. 

At first, play looks a lot like imaginary games, climbing the playground, and virtual gaming. But the older children get, the more play begins to mirror what adults recognize as learning and  creating. This is because children need time to get to know the particulars of their interests to begin piecing together how they want to contribute. How would you know what type of video game you wanted to make unless you knew dynamics that make video games fun?

In addition, intrinsically motivated topics can be learned to a much deeper degree and at a faster pace. When children enjoy what they are doing, serotonin is released which is known for assisting in the creation of long-lasting memories. It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you’re actually interested. As Aldous Huxley put it, “The secret of genius is to carry the spirit of the child into old age.” By spirit, I’m sure he means their connection to their natural curiosity, interests and pursuit of joy, which could also be called our drive for play.

In the traditional model of schooling, a child’s instinct to play is substituted for academics early on. But in a self-directed school, the child’s nature is trusted.

Trusting instincts doesn’t mean allowing a child to do whatever they want with no consequences; it means giving children enough freedom for their natural tendencies to arise so we can see what is actually relevant for them. By being attuned to the child’s world—their emotions, their challenges, their inspirations, and the boundaries they are pushing up against—learning opportunities arise intuitively moment by moment. We start to see that the child is whole, this moment is whole, and we just need to be perceptive of what is right in front of us.

In fact, it is actually painful to bypass what is present and real for us. When we are drawn towards a particular subject, for example, let’s say making art or reading your favorite book, it doesn’t feel good to have to sacrifice these interests for subjects that have no meaning to you.  Your inspiration, curiosity, and passion are telling you something. They carry a message saying, “This is relevant for you now, and will help you discover more of who you are.”

In addition, when a child experiences big emotions, let’s say a conflict with a fellow student, these feelings call for attention. Anger, frustration, or sadness, for example, carry a message saying, “Hey look, there is something that needs to be processed here.” 

When we don’t process our experiences or listen to our instincts, they don’t just go away. Those feelings stick around vying for our attention in other ways such as psychological distress, emotional and physical burnout, and even physical ailments. But in an environment of freedom and support, children have the space to figure out how to resolve these experiences for themselves, actualize on what actually speaks to them, or acquire the support needed from staff and community members.

For staff, this can look like brainstorming alongside a child for an upcoming camping trip, or holding space while a child expresses big feelings. But it can also look like holding restorative conversations in Civics Board, our school’s committee for resolving conflict, where the greater community can problem-solve together. This culture conveys the message: what is alive within me has value. I don’t need to push away what I am feeling, I need to get to the bottom of it. We see that we are not lacking the ingredients for learning, we simply need the space to pay attention to what is coming up for us.

Interpersonal and emotional learning is usually what is relevant for young children. They’re so busy working through new big feelings that it can be counterproductive to push any other learning agenda onto them. And while our conditioning may make us worry what our child is missing out on if they are not following a set curriculum, a more pertinent question may be: what might our child miss out on if they aren’t given space to be with what is actually coming up for them?

From this perspective, a signifying aspect of a great school is that it assists an individual’s ability to integrate their experience, rather than bypassing it for the sake of curriculum.

Now that we’ve explored many reasons why play is learning, let’s explore the possibility that the opposite is also true: that organized learning can be filled with play. In a self-directed school, the older students’ sense of play is not lost when they partake in sophisticated activities. They are not conditioned that they need to divorce from their curiosity and pursuit of happiness in order to learn. Instead, these instincts become the fuel that drives their organized learning. We are witnessing the natural evolution of play.  

This incorporation of play into activities that may look, on the surface, like work (for example, coding a video game) is a core component of a deeply satisfying and holistically successful life; a life that not only values achievement and monetary success, but happiness and purpose. This is something we would never consciously want to condition out of our children, yet that is exactly what we do when we insist they focus on material that is tedious and monotonous to them. We tell them: in order to be successful you must sacrifice what is meaningful to you.

Here at The Open School we want students to graduate into adulthood with their sense of play and drive for meaning still intact. This instinct is seen as the essential ingredient for real, joyful learning to occur, rather than something that needs to be suppressed.

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