Children are excellent learners. Their capacity to learn is heightened in moments of play. During play, their motivation and engagement combine to propel them forward in their development. Your children grow most efficiently in an open, spontaneous, child-centered, play environment. While I know this to be true on an intellectual and academic level, the point was driven home several times yesterday while I visited our classrooms on their first morning back after a (yes, very long) Passover vacation.
As I spent some time in each of our classes, I was struck by the power of child-centered play to push and prod your children into ever higher levels of development. When I write and talk about “child-centered play,” I mean play in which the child’s ideas are at the forefront and the teacher is backstage, if present at all. I mean play in which the child is wholly and completely free to act on their own volition; play in which the child is free to argue, struggle, flounder, strive, succeed, and grow on their own accord, without interference by an adult, teacher or parent.
In classroom 2, I am sitting at the Lego table as four children play and argue. Two students are struggling with a Solomon-like dilemma: one boy was using a Lego figure and dropped the body (legs and torso), but retained the head. His neighbor picked up the body, which is where our dialogue picks up:
Can I have that person?
No I want the head.
But I need the person, ‘cause I have the head.
But I need the head, ‘cause I have the person.
Well, I had the person but then just dropped him, so I need the person.
Well, the person is bigger and I have the person, so I need the head.
Well, you can just use the body to see out the legs and smell out the arms and stuff.
Well, you can just put the head there with no body [points to a Lego brick].
But that’s not fair! I had that person.
[A quiet struggle ensues as both boys grab at the body parts.]
The escalating argument and struggle is interrupted as another friend at the table presents his newly formed “house” to much applause from all at the table. In the applause, the holder of the “head” drops it! The other boy picks it up and adds it to the body. The Lego person is complete at last; the two boys look at each other sheepishly, erupt into giggles, and continue playing.
Logic, patience, dialogue, tolerance, fairness, ethics, friendship. All of these qualities, on such clear display here, come out when trust our children to work on their own. All of these qualities, brought up by a silly mishap at the Lego table, are potentially squashed when we insert ourselves too early, desperate to avoid what we perceive to be social conflict or an unfair situation. The more we trust our children, the more they show us they deserve it. The more patient we are in our observations, the more growth and development our children experience.
Moving next door to Classroom 3, a small group of children are playing on the rug with train tracks.
An excited buzz is in the air as the children are nearing completion of a circular track, a full loop for a train to go around. An unexpected scenario arises – none of the track pieces fit in the last spot! As the children try one piece and another, they attempt to jam each piece into the spot. Some are too big, some too small, some have the wrong type of connector. There appears to be no cognitive system in place other then guess-and-check. Suddenly, one of the children declares, “I have an idea! We need a piece with two holes.” The child is right – the spot in their track requires a peculiar piece with two “holes” at the end in order to fit correctly. A search ensues, the piece is quickly located, and the track is complete.
Are there any words more powerful a young child can say then “I have an idea”? Hearing a child say this, or express a similar sentiment, always stops me in my tracks. It is such a powerful declarative statement: “I am an original thinker. My thoughts have value; my thoughts are worth sharing. I want to use the ideas in my head and put them into action in a social setting.” What more can we desire from our children?
When we intervene in a child’s play as a parent or teacher to alleviate struggle and frustration, we are potentially robbing the child of arriving at their “I have an idea” moment. When we tell them, “Use this piece of track, it will fit there,” we are valuing productivity in the moment but shielding the child from their own immense capacity. Completing a circular track for our young students requires a high degree of coordination of social, cognitive, and spatial processes. When we let them sort out those processes on their own, they are left to realize it is their ideas that matter, not ours.
Now, there is an inevitable tension between theory and practice on this matter. This exists for all of us, in our roles as teachers and parents. Sure, it is good to let children “work it out,” but what if it escalates physically? Sure, it is good to let children struggle with train tracks, but what if the child never completes the track and sees it only as a moment of failure? And more mundanely, what if we have a train to catch, lunch to eat, or class to attend, and we are already running late? What if one child needs some self-esteem boosting and another child needs to feel struggle? These are the very real conflicts that we face in our minute-to-minute work with children. We know they grow and develop when left alone. It also makes us nervous and anxious to leave them alone. What to do?
Ultimately, the adult observer must consider the level of frustration they are comfortable with before intervening. So I ask our parents, as I have asked our teachers throughout the year, what is your comfort level with watching your child struggle? What indicators in their play make you step in? I ask that you discuss these questions with your partner, family member, close friend, or classroom teachers. We will each have different answers to these questions. But to do our work better, we have to discuss them.