This is a follow up post to “Breaking Sticks: Awesome Life Lessons From A 2 Year Old” in which I will relay how I plan to, and you might as well if you are a parent or an educator, apply these lessons in my roles as a father and a teacher. Please click on the title above for more context as it is a quick 5 minute read you will enjoy.
(You Gotta) Fight For Their Right (To Party) aka Let Them Play!
“Now boys, don't get into any trouble while mommy and daddy are gone. And DON'T make a mess!” - The Beastie Boys
I have gone through much material on the importance of unstructured play and I understand and agree with it 100%. Thing is though: I did not truly get the idea, observe it first hand, and experience its magic until the day I went on a walk with my 2-year-old son. I consider myself fortunate to be a father and a teacher. But I am also a learner. We all are. The learning never stops. Sometimes it’s just more profound than other times I think. Last week, I was lucky enough to see him play and learn in action and actually be aware of what was going on underneath as my son was exploring; literally picking up new skills as he was picking up sticks and learning about how the universe works as he was playing with them. I was also lucky enough to just let him play in his own way; get down, dirty, and completely immersed in his own world.
As adults, we have a tendency to think we know better, because we have more experience at…. Uhm…. All kinds of stuff? And while we are not the intended killers of play, I think all of us, at least at times, are real buzz kills for our kids. We do that by too often sticking our noses in their business and telling them what to do, because we have a very clear definition (to us) of what the world is like in our heads.
I might have gotten lucky in my realization of what was going on and Adam was spared from me spoiling his education with my schooling. Play can be messy. Play can be dirty. But unless real danger is present parents ought to let children play. Just look how focused or absorbed or excited kids of all ages (and adults too) can be when they play! Especially when they create their own amusement. And I am not a proponent of allowing kids to do whatever they conjure up. I think a good rule to follow here, both at home and in school, is to ASK yourself these 3 questions I learned while taking a Minneapolis Community Ed webinar series class on parenting toddlers:
Is it APPROPRIATE? Is it SAFE? Is it KIND?
And if you’ve ever been a parent or an educator you can probably attest to the fact that kids of all ages have a little toddler in them, so the ASK rule applies all the way through college. Shhhh! Just don’t say it to their face. And, don’t tell them I said that either :)
Of course, our definitions of Appropriate, Safe, and Kind will vary greatly, so for the love of all you hold dear Be Reasonable! Next time you consider stifling your children’s/students’ play ask yourself: is it because of the preferences, biases, and fears you have or is there something really wrong or recklessly dangerous about the whole thing? For example, driving or rock climbing may be dangerous, but if common sense is exercised…. You know what I mean.
Why is this so important?
While on our “Breaking Sticks” walk I could observe some of the things Adam was learning, because somehow I wasn’t just “hanging out” with him, which is awesome in its own right, but I was able to pause and process on a deeper level. However, how much did he learn that I cannot even fathom? I mean think about it: There's gotta be a lot of learning going on there that I don't know about because it isn't obvious! How much knowledge was safely tucked away in his precious little brain to be pulled out and used later in application to things both related and unrelated to the task during which it was learned?
So it is important to foster unstructured play with the kids at home and in early education. Dr. Martha S. Burns of Scientific Learning explains in her TEDx Enola Talk that the brain architecture that supports learning is formed through more relaxed interactions between parents and children in the early childhood, which allows the teachers to be more effective “brain builders” later. Among others, she names “play” and “having fun” as activities that build the neural "understructure” to get children ready to learn in school. Moreover, the diminished number of such experiences is precisely what leads to the achievement gap manifested in children from low SES families, as their brains are not yet prepared for formal learning when they enroll in school.
So how can this knowledge be applied in middle school and how do I plan to use it as a high school teacher? Here’s my entry for the understatement of the month to get this discussion going: “Students learn best when they are motivated and excited about the things they are learning.” I believe the trick to achieving this is to find a way to give student access to the materials and resources THEY WANT TO PLAY WITH and WE WANT THEM TO LEARN FROM all at the same time. How? Find Out! Talk to them. Ask them what they like. Don’t assume they all like the Biebs. Cater the instruction to them. Based on the subject you teach, it might not always be possible, but look for ways to incorporate things relevant to their lives as much as possible. This requires effort, but ends in excitement and many rewards, which leads to dopamine release in their brains and yours. And who doesn’t like a little DOPE-a-mine?
Numerous studies suggest that dopamine release increases memory retention, and if dopamine is released when we are having fun, being excited, and learning things we perceive as cool, it might serve us well as educators and help our students’ neural connections survive to make learning fun and teach about novel and cool things.
Check out my recent Chemistry Literacy Lesson and the article I used it with titled: Study finds chlorinated pools and pee are a match made in harmful gas heaven. Gross? Definitely! In fact, “disguising” and “gross” were the most prominent and emphatic words used by both students in my 4 chemistry classes and teachers at our district’s EdCamp session I led on Reading Informational Texts. But while most students disapproved of “going in the pool,” they actually enjoyed the article and got into heated discussions about the topic. Why? Because it was relevant to what they do. It was novel. And it was grossly exciting!
I realize that I will not always be able to do super exciting cool lessons, due to standards and the abstract nature of some chemistry. And that’s okay. However, I believe that if I commit to the conscious pursuit of such authentic, novel, and fun learning and provide many such experiences for my students, I will make a much larger impact. So I commit. Right here, right now. And you should to. C’mon! You know you want to :). Please feel free to use the presentation I linked to here anyway you please. Maybe use the reading/writing strategies with a fun article that’s relevant to what you do? Or maybe use the whole lesson, article included, and see how your students respond?
“Knowledge is not power. It is only potential for power. Because to know and not to do is to not know” - Darren Hardy
So do it. Do something. If you’re already doing something, do more. Fight For Their Right.
Okay. So "porno mags" and cigarettes may be too much “fun” for school, but the song is meant to inspire, so you can aspire. Please share this post and share a strategy or two you use in your parenting or teaching in the comments below. SIGN UP for my NEWSLETTER if you would like to receive the third post in this series and many other future tips on how to help your students become better learners and how to increase your impact as an educator.
And Above All Remember: You have the power to change the world. Use it often.