Rosy-cheeked and Resourceful
(an article on play)
Whenever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the forest, a little boy and his Bear will always be playing. Closing lines of Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne
A pleasing feature of home education is that the transition from Kindergarten to that of the higher grades can be a gradual one. Definite lessons for the first grader require his attention. These lessons are formal and do not resemble play but because seatwork is completed in far less time than the conventional classroom, more time is available for other developmental activities . . .and play.
|New York, New York|
Play is a wellspring of refreshing water that bubbles up and flows through the activities of the child. Play produces joy, freedom, satisfaction, repose, and peace. The spontaneous impulse of a child to explore comes from his wellspring of curiosity.
|Photograph by Nat Farbman|
The most intelligent creatures in the animal kingdom do the most play. In fact, it may seem to us that they spend an inordinate amount of time playing. Consider the otter, the dolphin, puppies and kittens and how much of their time is spent in play.
In the autobiographical book, Ring of Bright Waters, naturalist Gavin Maxwell says of his pet, “Otters that have been reared by human beings demand human company, much affection, and constant co-operative play; without these things they quickly become unhappy, and for the most part they are tiresome in direct ration to their discontent.” *1 Does this sound like any children you know?
Before Mr. Maxwell moved with his otter Mij to Camusfearna, on the seaside of Scotland, Mij was confided to a London studio apartment. “When he was loose in the studio, he would play for hours at a time with what soon became an established selection of toys, ping-pong balls, marbles, India-rubber fruit, and a terrapin shell that I had brought back from his native marshes.” *2 I’ve read as far as chapter eight but I know (from seeing the 1960s film) that soon Mij revels in the expansive freedom of the seaside.
|Manhattan, New York|
In the late 20th century, wherever our family moved, the neighborhoods were strangely quiet. I remember feeling it a pity that my children were missing something that had been a happy part of my childhood. My children didn’t notice anything missing. They happily played together.
But I couldn’t help it. There were days when I would import children into our backyard – usually children of a home teaching friend.
Today, in the 21st century neighborhoods are quieter than ever. But a little networking is all it takes to plan an occasional hour or so of neighborhood-ish play.
A couple generations ago neighborhoods were safe. And they were noisy. Rollicking children yelled at the top of their lungs, “Ready or not here I come” and sought those who hid or ran at top speed to tag their playmates. The branches of trees had children in them. Wagons, wheel barrows and make sift go-carts had children in them. Kick-the-can added to the noise of the street. My mother joined in.
|Photograph by George Marks|
Metal roller skates rattled over the cracks of the sidewalk. My mother gave me a pair. The shinny metal skates triggered a memory of hers. She told me how her Victorian born and bred grandmother was adamant that Joanie didn’t roller skate on Sunday afternoons. “It isn’t proper,” she said, “when people are sitting in their front parlors [eight feet from the sidewalk] trying to relax.”
Dolls were pushed in baby carriages. Girls doted over their dolls.
My father told me that the boys on his block (1930-40s) would huddle together to thumb marbles with intense interest in the outcome. He was one of them. My mother became skilled at jacks.
In my own childhood, if a car was turning the corner, the first child to spy it would alert the others in the street with, “Car, car, c-a-r, stick your head in a jelly jar.” I was a baby-boomer born in the heavily populated state of New Jersey, twenty miles from Manhattan, during the glorious - perhaps last remaining - days of neighborhood play.
Hopscotch was played on the street methodically day after day. We girls took the game seriously. I became quite good at balancing for my rock and avoiding any stepping on a chalk line.
What I wasn’t good at were the games “Red Light, Green Light, and “Mother May I?” played by boys and girls together after supper. I humbly obeyed the oft-voiced commands of “go back” by my betters. Only when we swatted our first mosquito did we break up and go inside.
|Photograph by Ralph Morse|
Attention deficit was at an all-time low in the days of neighborhood play. Play develops the brain and prepares children for more complicated thinking. It is why I made, “Ready, Set, Go” a chapter in my book, A Charlotte Mason Companion, as well as a chapter on playing with sand. Do my critics who say the book is full of “fluff” hold the point-of-view that legitimate brain development is only what takes place at a desk? Maybe they just don’t understand. Maybe play, and all its benefits, is a forgotten phenomenon.
|My grandsons in the sandbox|
Childhood is precious. Yet, it is disappearing. Mothers who are attracted to the Victorian writings of Miss Charlotte Mason, I suspect are the same mothers who seek to preserve it. Miss Mason did. In the synopsis of her educational theory she says, first and foremost, that children are born persons. Turn a few pages of Home Education and we are set among detailed chapters on how to educate the whole “person.”
In our modern media-saturated society children are sucked into themes and images of the adult world before they are ready. Many home teachers acknowledge the usefulness of screens but are aware of the dangers of overuse, too. They seek, for their children, the innocence and creative intelligence that a more old-fashioned definition of the term “childhood” provides. In our electronic age an old-fashioned childhood may seem prolonged or backward. Couldn’t it be that the reverse is true; that childhoods today are cut short?
I learned from Charlotte Mason that, although she had a high regard for the right sort of books, and the discipline of daily lessons, education doesn’t begin and end with books. Neither does childhood and play end with Kindergarten. In Home Education first published in 1886 she tells us:
“That play, vigorous, healthful play, is, in its turn fully as important as lessons as regards both bodily health and brainpower.
That the knowledge most valuable to the child is that which he gets with his own eyes and ears and fingers (under direction) in the open air.
That the claims of the schoolroom should not be allowed to encroach on the child’s right to long hours daily for exercise and investigation.” *3
Take a leap forward in time. In Dr. Jane Healy’s book, Endangered Minds, published 1990, is the chapter “Why Can’t They Pay Attention?” Here she makes a parallel between the dramatic decline in neighborhood play (75% less than the early 1900s) and a child’s inability to pay attention to more abstract types of learning.
|Photograph by H. Armstrong Roberts|
Dr. Healy says that the kind of play “that involves children of different ages, basically unsupervised by adults,” enables a child “to gain visual and auditory attention, and body coordination.”
Through play children initiate their own noise and are set in motion by their own “sense of internal rhythms” (jump rope, tag, hopscotch, swings).
What is taking the place of “the child initiative” is a bombardment from without of external rhythms and the dominant beats of hard rock music and flashy video in which the children remain passive both mentally and physically.*4
Playful children are alert, rosy cheeked and resourceful. Isn’t this the same playpower–brainpower parallel Miss Mason spoke of more than one hundred years prior when she wrote,
“The resourcefulness which will enable a family of children to invent their own games and occupations through the length of a summer’s day is worth more in after life than a good deal of knowledge about cubes and hexagons.” *5
Play is for all ages. It is for the teacher and mother, too. It colors and compliments Mother Culture beautifully. Those who partake of even a morsel find it invigorating.
Your Opinions are Welcome,
1. Gavin Maxwell, Ring of Bright Water, Longmans, pg 99
2. Ibid, pg 102
3. Charlotte Mason, Home Education, republished by Charlotte Mason R & S Co.,1989 (I lost track of the pages because I started writing this two years ago and recently found the rough draft on my laptop.)
4. Jane M. Healy, Ph.D. Endangered Minds, Simon & Schuster, 1990, pgs 171-172.
5. Home Education, pg 192