To be playful is to be secure and confident enough to enjoy experimenting with new ideas. Students who ultimately get the most out of school, and have the highest expectations for the future, are those who have been fortunate enough to find school more play-like than work-like1.
The English take work very seriously; it probably goes back to our task-orientated and unsmiling Puritan ancestors. The more difficult the task the greater the reward; if it doesn’t hurt, it’s not work. Play was for children, while work defined a man. So preoccupied have the English become with the importance of school as a place of “work” that they have forgotten the significance of play2. Which has to be strange, for he who doesn’t understand that education and entertainment are really one and the same thing, doesn’t actually understand either3. Ants don’t play, they don’t have to; they’re born programmed for specific behaviours. Children, because of the complexities of their brains, need more play than any other species. The more playful the child, the more creative he or she is likely to be. Children who have no toys automatically create their own; in wartime England an empty tea chest strapped to a pair of pram wheels provided as many hours of fun as any sophisticated electric train set. Hunter/gatherer children make dolls from bits of straw, stones and discarded bones, and love them every bit as much as a Barbie doll. Play is where children see imaginary things happening. Through play they learn to get on with others, and how to work to achieve a common goal4. The origins of a PhD, or a stable marriage, probably owe as much to lessons learnt in the sandpit, as anything else.
The real value of play lies in it being open-ended, uncontrived. Today’s children aren’t used to this. Their parents, and teachers, have been so encouraged by an alarmist press to see a problem, or a possible litigation, around every corner that they see threat in such unstructured activity5. The countryside beyond the first half mile or so of a town has become strangely silent; the footpaths untrodden, with few youngsters seeking to snare a rabbit, build a tree house, or watch the birth of a calf. Where the young Shakespeare once roamed so freely and learnt to identify 60 birds and 108 plants, English children no longer go. Asked of a hundred fifteen-year-olds if any had seen the dawn break from a mountain top only two hands went up6; asked who would have liked to have seen such a dawn, and more than sixty hands instantly went up. As Plato put it “… Man is made God’s plaything, and that is the best part of him. Therefore every man and woman should live life accordingly, and play the noblest games”.
“Becoming Adult7” is a recent, insightful analysis of how adolescents prepare for the world of work. Contrary to expectations it was not more career advice that was needed, nor longer periods of ‘work experience’, rather it was a different way of teaching that properly balanced the subject knowledge of the teacher with opportunities for children to develop a ‘playful’ (that is an inquisitive, testing, experimenting) attitude in all their work. This is not easily done, for what earlier generations of children learnt automatically from messing around on the street corner has now to be provided in school as simulated problem solving, something that can never be quite real8. The second recommendation was even more challenging. The children who went furthest in adult life were those who, as adolescence, had developed a passionate interest in something, it hardly mattered what, that meant they became so engrossed by what they were doing that the excitement permeated everything they did. Psychologists and biologists call this “flow”9. But here was the basic problem; most of the activities that put youngsters into such a state of flow originated outside the school. It was not on the timetable, it was no one’s formal responsibility to provide.
In a book on the endangered nature of intelligence10, one of America’s most influential child psychiatrists argued (what most parents already knew) that intelligence does not arise from cognitive stimulation alone, but needs plenty of empathy and self-reflection, and to be grounded in rich, early emotional experiences. Contemporary society he warned, by fostering ever increasing impersonality in so many aspects of life, is restricting the opportunity for the next generation of young people to develop in the deep and meaningful way that has characterised the home environment for significant proportions of the population in the past. We can’t take the intelligence of our society for granted, he warned, if the favourable conditions that created it disintegrate11.
In 2006 twenty-five thousand English eleven-year-olds were given a series of tests that had been given to similar youngsters thirty years before12. The results were very troubling. In 1976 one-third of the boys and a quarter of the girls had high overall scores. By 2004 the figure was down to 6% for boys, 5% for girls. What could be the explanation for such a startling fall in results? “By over-stressing the basics, reading and writing, and testing like crazy you eventually reduce levels of cognitive stimulation” said one researcher, while another added, “Children know the facts, but they’re not thinking very well”13.
So, if today’s children are losing the ability to think for themselves what, indeed, is the value of what children are being taught, and what is the value of all those test results that every year seem to rise to new heights? Are children now so over schooled that they are, in effect, undereducated?14
Thesis 89: 27th August 2006