Teaching Opinion

How Schools Can Keep Play Alive

By Deborah Meier — October 08, 2015 2 min read

Deborah Meier continues her conversation with Harry Boyte. To read their full exchange, please visit here.

Dear Harry and friends,

Ah yes. Imagine if we/they really wiped out play. Maybe it can’t happen. But even reduced to the secret in-the-head type of play, what kind of damage might occur? Honestly, Harry, I don’t know. It’s so essential to all mammals. I think democracy would be one of the victims however, alongside with literature, poetry, music, dance and ... Maybe.

What steps might be taken that reduce the odds that this will happen? As with gun violence it’s hard to know whether it can be eliminated by mandate. But I seem more inclined to do so than you? I think it’s worth a try. Mandating play may be absurd, even counter-productive, since the kind of play we’re talking about is precisely a freely taken act of human agency—which distinguishes it from those forms of play—like baseball—that I suppose could be “required.” (Although not the fantasies that may go with it.)

There are, however, things we can eliminate that discourage play: like our obsession with rank order. Comparing everyone with everyone seems to come rather naturally with institutional life, a way of keeping order. Comparing is the fundamental key underlying all standardized testing and even most grading systems. In You Can’t Say Can’t Play, Vivian Gussin Paley describes the profound effect of popularity ranking in Kindergarten.

Getting to know children well, both individually and socially, complicates comparisons. See Pat Carini’s work, e.g. Starting Strong, for an approach to knowing children and their work in ways that avoid comparisons. I wouldn’t mandate it, however. But smaller class sizes, the ending of high stakes standardized tests, greater teacher autonomy alongside more time for family and school to work together would improve the odds in favor of play. And these could be mandated. For example teachers can’t get to know parents well if they have too many students (more than 15?), and little time set aside for that purpose. Parents can’t either, unless we provide something like mandatory time-off with pay like jury duty. And make these both generous. Multi-age classrooms also help us from falling into comparisons so quickly. Even eliminating all the curricular and test specific mandates that apply to a single grade (one for 2nd, another for 3rd) might make it easier to diminish the “coverage” obsession. Providing for more generous material budgets—blocks are expensive for example—in the early years, more unstructured outdoor space and flexible scheduling would help.

Changing some existing mandates that interfere with play may be our best plan. It might even encourage teachers to play—with ideas as well as materials; be mathematicians and poets; which might in turn spill over into politics and democracy, which in turn might make us think about the “habits of mind” and heart that improves the odds for democracy. Not to mention greater equality in our life circumstances.


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