Pilfering Play

Have you ever read something that attached itself to you? You kept thinking about it and couldn’t get away from it. That happened to me recently. I was reading through my list of blogs and came across a photo of an old poster that protested children working in textile mills. The quote on that poster floored me. I think my mouth dropped open.

“The worst thief is he who steals the playtime of children.” (W.D. Haywood)

I immediately thought about the current education system. Young children’s play is being squeezed out (or just outright seized) for academics. To be ready for the future, children are losing their present opportunities to play.

This quote kept playing over in my head. I wrote about it on my own blog. I thought about other things I’ve been reading about play and young children. And I kept coming back to that quote and what implications could be drawn. Current education practice is like the old days of child labor. Children are put in education “factories” and required to do more adult tasks while losing opportunities to play and discover and learn in more age-appropriate ways. And I was feeling a little smug about that. “I don’t do that. I’m not like them.”

But my mind kept working. I realized that I, too, can pilfer play from the children I teach. I can push my own agenda and manipulate the activity in the classroom so that children are doing what I want them to do instead of really playing. Oh, they may be doing things in a more play-like way but it’s my activity. My way. My play not theirs. I’ve stolen their playtime so they can do the work I’ve planned.

How do we pilfer the playtime from children?

We interrupt what is happening to interject our own ideas or teaching points.

We talk more than we listen.

We plan how something will be done (or what the final product will be) without involving children or even listening to their ideas along the way.

We say “no” more than we say “yes.”

We rigidly follow our plans instead of being flexible and following the children’s lead (especially if it leads to unexpected destinations).

We give more answers and ask less questions.

We don’t pay attention to what children tell us with their words, their actions, their expressions.

We push for the future and miss the now.

We don’t stop and smell the roses (or look at the ant or press an ear to the wall to hear sounds from the other side or yell in a pipe to hear the sound travel).

We may be well intentioned. We may have their best interests in mind. We may want to help them succeed.

But we’re thieves. We steal their playtime, their learning time. We pilfer their play.

And the odd thing is…we are stealing from ourselves as much as from the children.

Children’s play teaches me. I learn more about them. I learn more about the world. And I learn more about how to wonder and enjoy.

Don’t pilfer the play. Don’t steal it. Don’t embezzle it. Protect it. Guard it. Fend off those who would deny it.

It’s one of the richest treasures they (and we) have.

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