Friday, May 10, 2013


This post is inspired by recent conversations with various people, but especially this beautiful comment from Chris Corrigan. I've posted an article on play, before - one written by my wonderful child-development-expert mother - but this post is written more from my perspective as an unschooling adult and parent.

To preface, here's one of the educationally playful things my family does, lately. We watch Kid Snippets! And I find this one quite suitable, today:

Work sucks. Play is fun. 
We all know this. So why work?

"Waiting in line at the supermarket feels wasteful unless you play with the other people in line."
- Sydney Gurewitz Clemens
...from the article Time in Community Playthings' booklet The Wisdom of Play.1

We know we have to perform certain tasks, acquire certain skills, etc. that we don't feel inspired about. So how do we strike a balance that doesn't involve a whole lot of drudgery? Taking "play times" in between "work times" is, in my opinion, like feeding an addiction2. We begin rewarding ourselves with play times, and the play times become a sort of binge of happiness, before we return to the work. If we play too long, we feel ashamed, and probably more miserable about the work. Then we need more play times. We need comfort foods and relaxation therapies. We call ourselves by the name of the "work" we do (nurse, doctor, programmer, teacher, etc.) and after work seek to soothe ourselves from the drudgery that defines our lives. But why?

I would like to define my life by what I love. To redefine both "work" and "play" so that they are the same thing! I would like to love my work so much that it feels like play, and to watch my children learn and grow by playing.

To a certain extent this requires making careful choices about the activities I do, but some activities are unavoidable, and some unpleasant activities come packaged with the things I love to do. In these cases I need re-envision my activities and myself. If I have to clean this bathroom, I am going to enjoy it! I'm going to use a cleaner that makes me happy; and delight in the clean space when I'm finished. I'm going to experiment with new cleaning methods and different systems -- because experimenting is fun. I'm a housewife; I don't particularly love cooking 3-4 meals/day, but in experimenting with inventing dishes and recipes I manage to find enough "play" to make the act of cooking rewarding.

Lifestyle Choices
Play: Working out communication & relationships.
There's a lot of talk these days about helping kids and parents to handle stress - because our lives have become overloaded with it, and many of us are imploding from the pressure. But why should we learn to handle it; why not just reject the lifestyle that causes it; reject it entirely? It's in moments of stress that adrenaline takes over and we act without thinking. I've seen my children become unable to answer the simplest questions because of fear or confusion. It is through play that we find happiness - endorphins. It is through play that we discover and find understanding, even of situations that might otherwise have been stressful.

So it may be obvious why my husband and I have chosen to unschool our family, but it's also obvious to me that the cycle of play-and-shame-and-work is nevertheless being passed on to our children. We're accustomed to thinking of activities in terms of learning value, and this learning value usually has a high (subconscious) correlation with drudgery. I once heard one parent describing the difference between our local Reggio Emilia preschool and the local Montessori preschool to another parent: "Well... at the other preschool they just let the kids play all day; at the Montessori they actually teach them to read and do math."3 Keep in mind that the "other" preschool being described here was the preschool my mother (who wrote the article I referred to at the beginning of this post) taught at. Obviously, there was a great deal of misunderstanding in this comment, but unfortunately I think it relates a commonly-held misconception both about the methods and values of the different educational philosophies concerned, as well as about the value of play. And it doesn't come from sheer ignorance on the part of those who don't understand; it comes from many generations of a culture that values rote repetition and mimicry over inspired explorative learning. And yet, if we were to make a list of our culture's heroes - our "great thinkers", it would read like a list of the who's who of unschooling:
On the contrary, look into the biography of nearly every great thinker and innovator and you'll find a lack of formal schooling or a hatred of same. If you're an American, start with our own.  Mark Twain, one of our greatest wits and writers quit school after 6th grade.  Thomas Edison was expelled from school after a few weeks of second grade and was home schooled—he became the greatest inventor in American history.  Ben Franklin: one year of grammar school, one year of tutoring, no formal education after age 10.  George Washington attended school irregularly.  In England, Michael Faraday practically created modern electromagnetics.  He performed all the seminal experiments that Edison later repeated.  He never attended any school.  I could go on and on.  Einstein stated that schooling almost destroyed his interest in knowledge...    
                                                --Henry Lindner

Playing with blocks imaginatively doesn't seem to hold as much value as following a prescribed pattern with the blocks, and achieving satisfying results. A child's enthusiasm for simply looking at books doesn't seem to hold as much value as that child's ability to quickly and fluently read the words in the books. And yet, it is the playing and the imagination that lead us down the paths to discovery, and we often are more enthusiastic about what we discover ourselves than what we are taught by others. It's enthusiasm that leads us down the paths to our passions, and it is our passions that define our futures.

I'll leave the last words to Chris (from the comment I mentioned at the beginning):
"There is no such thing as practice...
"There is only playing."

Community Playthings' Excellent Articles on Play:
2 Shame and its relationship with addiction relapses:
3 Why play is important in preschools:

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