Al sh'loshah d'varim haolam omed: Al haTorah, v'al ha-avodah, v'al g'milut chasadim. The world depends on three things: on Torah, on worship and on loving deeds. - Pirkei Avot 1:2
This year each issue of Vshinantam will be written in partnership with Dr. Robert Brooks www.drrobertbrooks.com, our featured speaker at the 2005 Symposium on Adolescence. New Jersey-West Hudson Valley Council Regional Educator Sharon Halper will help us apply Dr. Brooks theory to our school settings.
Vshinantam is organized around the three pillars of Torah, Avodah, and Gmilut Chasadim. In the Torah section you will find a selection of Dr. Brooks writing, in Avodah, applications for your classroom, and in Gmilut Chasadim additional resources.
Anyone who has interacted with young children can offer many examples of their rich imagination and their use of the simplest toy or object to transport them into a wonderfully imaginative world filled with possibility. As educators and developmental and clinical psychologists have often reminded us, such imaginative play is not only fun but offers opportunities for the growth of cognitive, language, and emotional skills.
I read two thought-provoking articles. One appeared in the October 9, 2006 issue of The Boston Globe, titled "The Hidden Power of Play" authored by renowned child psychologist David Elkind of Tufts University. As many of you are aware, Elkind is the author of the bestselling book The Hurried Child that was released in the 1980s, a book that captured the push to have children grow up too quickly, often robbing them of their ability to "just play." In The Boston Globe article Elkind extolled the benefits of play and lamented the loss of playtime in a child's life.
Elkind begins the article, "At a time of great international turmoil, growing globalization, and exploding technological advances, making time for child play seems an unaffordable luxury. Yet, a study by the American Academy of Pediatricsdue out todaymakes just the opposite case. It argues for the essential role of play in the healthy mental, physical, and social/emotional development of the child."
Elkind masterfully offers examples of the ways in which play helps children to adapt to the world and "create new learning experiences." He contends that play, work, and love are three innate drives that are not at odds with each other, but rather "power human thought and action throughout the entire life cycle." He expands upon these three concepts and argues that any endeavor, whether at home, in school, or in the workplace complement one another, noting that at school "when children have some input (play) into the curriculum, this creates positive motivation (love) and more effective and lasting learning (work)."
Those who know my philosophy can understand why Elkind's words resonated with my own beliefs about the experiences that help children to be more joyful and resilient.
The other article was published in the September 11, 2006 issue of Newsweek. It was authored by Peg Tyre and titled "The New First Grade: Too Much Too Soon?" Several of the people interviewed tended to minimize the importance of play while paying homage to more formal learning experiences.
I am an advocate of young children being prepared to learn basic academic skills and to receive assistance if they are having difficulties. But I am very concerned that as the focus in our schools shifts to high-stakes testing, we are wearing blinders, equating all learning with formal instruction and sticking facts into the heads of young children. In this scenario, play takes a back seat in the learning process.
Walter Gilliam, a child development expert at Yale University interviewed for the Newsweek article echoes my sentiments. He contends, "There comes a time when prudent people begin to wonder just how high we can raise our expectations for our littlest schoolkids." Gilliam says that education is not just about teaching letters but about turning curious kids into lifelong learners.
I recognize that children are very different in terms of when they are cognitively and emotionally ready to learn different concepts and information. I also believe that young children are prepared to absorb a great deal of information. However, I have significant misgivings when adults do not appreciate the many avenues through which children learn, including, as Elkind so eloquently highlights, play.
I am not proposing an either-or proposition, namely, all play or all formal education for kindergarten and first grade children. Instead, I am suggesting a balance that may differ from one child to another, a balance that incorporates all kinds of learning, that does not push children beyond their limits and consequently turn them off to learning, and that appreciates the impact of imaginative play as an influential source of teaching and learning.
Play at School
Drs. Brooks and Elkind expand our understanding of play and the role that it plays in learning. Play, rather than being thought of as an activity or an end in itself, is to them a methodology, a means of creating an environment that is conducive to learning and that creates self-motivated, creative and engaged learners. For Brooks, inviting students to be an active part of creating a dynamic learning environment, a playful environment, is productive of creating resilience in our children. This sense of personal power enables children to develop positive self-esteem, equipping them to meet lifes challenges.
A sense of play is the result of experiencing innovation and providing input.
Dr. Elkind says that play is an outcome of child input and teacher innovation. Playing is not about toys, but rather about creativity and the excitement born of imaginative engagement on the part of both teacher and learner. Rather than questions that test knowledge and skill, ask open-ended questions that prompt creativity and the use of imagination. Be open to the idea that you and the students are all question-askers and answer-seekers, on a learning journey together.
In our settings, this approach to teaching sends an important message about what it means to be a Jew. The teacher models that success does not equal fluent reading or having all the answers, but rather open engagement with the deep questions and a continued commitment to exploring them. Dont be afraid to introduce these big questions into classand not to have the answers.
Play is about not being told exactly what to do
In his article Pressurized Children, Pressurized Adults: Lets Find Time for Play, Dr. Brooks cites the work of Dr. Ned Hallowell. Hallowell defines play as any activity in which there is room for spontaneous invention and/or change The opposite of play is doing exactly what you are told to do.
Create a classroom environment in which students have choices, such as which activities to do first or which topics to explore further. Allow students to choose how they will show you that they have learned something, using various modalities and different opportunities for investigation, research and presentation. Pose interesting questions and let the students do the rest.
Resilience is a result of play
Dr. Brooks speaks of the contribution of play to the development of the resilient child, the child who feels competent, significant and able to make a positive impact on their environment. Accepting input and allowing for choice and change demonstrate a teachers trust in his or her students and allows students to demonstrate that they can make appropriate and responsible choices.
Does your classroom reflect a trust in the students that empowers them? One that does allows students to suggest class projects and topics for study, lets students take their own breaks, and gives students meaningful jobs and leadership roles.
A playful educational system builds students resilience and that of our community, creating empowered and creative adults who can make a positive contribution.
Brooks, Robert Ph.D. and Sam Goldstein, Ph.D. Raising Resilient Children. New York: Contemporary Books, 2001.
Edwards, Carolyn, Lella Gandini and George Forman, Eds. The Hundred Languages ofChildren. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation, 1996.
Wood, Chip. YARDSTICKS: Children in the ClassroomAges 4-14. Greenfield, MA: Northeast Foundation for Children, 1997.