Spending time in a nursery school affords one the opportunity to see magical things happening every day. Each and every time I enter one of our classrooms, I am stopped in my tracks by the vibrant energy emanating from the children at play. Aptly stated in a NY Times article this week, the combination of good teachers and students’ creative energy results in an environment in which “the room hums.”
Shael Polakow-Suransky, the newly appointed President of Bank St College of Education and author of the article, goes on to describe that child-centered play is an essential ingredient in a nursery class if we are committed to giving our children the opportunity to thrive in ongoing K-12 environments. When describing the push towards early academics of all sorts in the pressure-cooker of Manhattan schools, Shael states, “This is a false choice. We do not need to pick between play and academic rigor.”
With this in mind, I sat in one of our classrooms and watched and listened as the room, indeed, hummed.
Two girls walked over to the painting easel, eagerly helping each other don the paint-splattered camp t-shirts that the teachers provide for smocks. The two girls, almost enmeshed as one, slowly but surely pull each other’s limbs through the right holes in the oversized shirts. Their armor properly on, they grin widely. Taking their positions at the wide easel, comfortably sized for two, their attention seems equally aimed at their partner and the paint. At first cautiously, and later with frenzy, they move brush from paint-cup to paper and back again, each time checking on their partner in between. With each stroke, their paintings display a complex process unfolding: their artwork emerges almost identical. Were they in a gallery, one might be accused of fraud! But in the context of child development, we instead see mimicry and mirror neurons, adulation and emulation. We see friends exploring and cementing the depth of their relationship. And throughout their painting, almost unconsciously, we see them teaching each other about color mixing in a way no amount of rote exposure to the color wheel could accomplish. They artfully mixed blue, red, and white to accomplish carefully hued purples and pinks. They worked their graphomotor muscles (the finger muscles used for penmanship) and extended their stamina with a writing implement in a way no amount of teacher-directed practice could accomplish, so intent as they were on matching their partner stroke for stroke.
Within whispering distance, three boys played in the block area. What a mess: blocks everywhere, boys jumping and yelling; definitely part of the “hum.” Could the learning – social and skill-based – be as deep here as the focused artists? I could only wait and see.
Each of the three boys held two long, skinny wooden blocks, waving them around as swords. Hard enough to make a loud noise, but soft enough to remind each other they were “just play fighting” (as one boy remarked to his partners), they thwacked their swords together. In roles older than school itself, they were playing bad guys/good guys. With the deftness of experienced fencers, they darted in, out, and around each other. When a block slid down its intended target and landed on one boy’s fingers, he exclaimed, “That hurts – maybe we shouldn’t play this anymore.” The boys, resigned to the truth in the statement, got in a few half-hearted strokes with their swords as the play dwindled and they sat down amidst the mess of blocks they had made. Given room to experiment with boundaries and appropriateness, the boys had realized that sword-play did not work so well. They exhibited what Polakow-Suransky refers to as self-regulation, one of the skills he says that “have their roots in early childhood” and can “make or break students” in their later academic years.
At our Parent Orientation last month you heard me quote Alfie Kohn: “Kids learn to make good decisions by making decisions, not by following directions.” Here it was on full display. Self-regulation and all the benefits that come with it are not things that can be given to children; they must be practiced, day in and day out, in a safe and supportive environment. But their lesson for the day would not end there; they would not remain silent for long. Picking up a block, one boy shouted,
“Hey, let’s make a rocket ship!”
“Yea! This goes here.”
“Yup. And this one goes here.”
“OK, but can we put this one here?”
“Yea, that’s for the laser.”
“You’re my best friend.”
Suddenly present in between the three boys was a carefully balanced and intricately symmetrical “rocket ship.” The triangles, rectangles, cones, and arches had been gently placed according to each boy’s desire. Their emerging self-regulation, strengthened through play, had guided them from fighting to construction. Their use of balance and symmetry made clear that while building, they were exploring and experimenting within the conceptual world of geometry and physics. Placing this learning in the block corner, in activity driven by the children, allows for the emerging academic skills to be embedded within the context of becoming “best friends.” What better way to be learning something? What better motivation to explore and explain than the praise of a friend?
Under the careful tutelage of our teachers, our students’ play becomes academically and socially rigorous. In a world with increasingly demanding and complex expectations made of grown-ups, play provides the necessary experiences for our young ones to grow and develop in appropriately mature ways. Play gives them the friends, skills, and confidence they will need now and throughout their life.