Play Well!

What naturalist John Muir noted more than a century ago, today’s homeschoolers can see for themselves and come to trust as immutable truth. Parenting connects to play... and play connects to learning...  and learning connects to life..amen

It was easy and natural for us to play with our firstborn as a baby and toddler without wanting to “teach” her. In my mind that precious time was “pre-school” so it was guilt-free playtime for us all! But because my mind was full of formal education about formal education, I had a harder time later in coming to trust play for connecting kids to just about anything at any age.

One thing that helped was that both kids became musical theatre geeks, literally playing with plays. The learning connections were so strong and clear that the formal schooling voice inside my own head sang and danced and happily played along.

But as my firstborn approached high school age, my inner teacher started scolding me for playing when there was serious business at hand. It meant that I really had to work at it, filling my bookshelves and poring over journal articles before I could keep trusting play as directly connected to learning.

I found a scholarly review of Real Kids: Creating Meaning in Everyday Life, a Harvard University Press book in which (teacher and parent turned psychologist) Susan L. Engel “argues that children’s play and storytelling provide clear evidence that children’s thinking is not a simplified version of adult thinking, but rather reflects a qualitatively different way of interacting with the world — a way of interacting in which the boundaries between fantasy and reality are highly permeable.”

I found Psychology Today articles, including Peter Gray’s work on play connections: “Play makes children nimble—neurobiologically, mentally, behaviorally—capable of adapting to rapidly evolving world. That makes it just about the best preparation for life in the 21st century... Think of play as the future with sneakers on.”

Mac co-inventor Paul Graham isn’t a psychologist but his connections helped me learn about serious play, too:

“By the time they reach an age to think about what they’d like to do, most kids have been thoroughly misled about the idea of loving one’s work. School has trained them to regard work as an unpleasant duty.”

Did you know the word “Lego” is a creative fusion of the Danish words leg and godt, which literally means “play well” but can also be interpreted to mean“I gather together” in Latin, and “I connect” in Italian? Translation: playing well and connecting share meaning in any language!

I personally love Legos and we’ve got whole bins full. (If your kids are old enough not to swallow them, you probably do, too, or will have before you know it.) They literally embody play that creates and sustains connections. Legos help transform the factual into the imaginary, can make the imaginary downright fantastical, and in the best play, can create whole new worlds.

When Lego turned 50 and was rewarded with its very own Google Doodle for the day, the logo’s letters built entirely of these bright little play connections, the New York Times business section did a long feature that I read aloud with my teenage son. He naturally connected the somewhat ponderous business writing back this own play:

“The video games they’ve made so far — the two Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Batman— have been just ingenious at skewering the movies! All the cut scenes and even some of the gameplay do a great job of mimicking and yet mocking the movie. . .The thing I’ve always enjoyed is to see how they build the figures because face it, who wouldn’t find the Lego Sean Connery hilarious??” [He shows me the figure — he’s right. It’s adorable.] Then he adds he’d like to see a Lego Lone Ranger tie-in. Which would be great because there’s no gun violence problem as discussed in the article, since the Lone Ranger never shoots to kill. He begins strolling around, performing the Lone Ranger theme instrumentation at the top of his lungs. Ten minutes later he comes out of his room with an incredibly credible Lone Ranger, gloves and black mask, mounted on a silver white horse . . .

Days like that made it easy to see the power of play connecting to everything.

The New York Times shared more formally in "Can the Right Kinds of Play Teach Self-Control?"

“. . .a simple but surprising idea: that the key to developing self-regulation is play, and lots of it. But not just any play. The necessary ingredient is what Leong and Bodrova call ‘mature dramatic play’: complex, extended make-believe scenarios, involving multiple children and lasting for hours,even days. If you want to succeed in school and in life, they say, you first need to . . .spend hour after hour dressing up in firefighter hats and wedding gowns, cooking make-believe hamburgers and pouring nonexistent tea, doing the hard, serious work of playing pretend...maybe what we all need to do is to blur the line a bit between what is work and what is play.”

Our parenting play with the kids was almost always story play of some sort – movies, books, television, musical theatre characters and video games all connecting to the same or similar characters and themes. Thus our humor and fun as a family was centered on knowing and following myriad story scripts, staying in character with whatever roles we were playing out, from the time Dad would be Eeyore or a Wild Thing and the child would be Christopher Robin or Pooh or Max, to throwing Les Miz and Sondheim dialogue and songs back and forth as we do now with two teens.

So looking back at how I made my own connections between play and learning, teaching myself to not teach my children wasn’t work and it wasn’t school. More by happy accident than design I had kept myself busy long enough working through scholarly stuff on play, that it (mostly) kept me from inflicting scholarly stuff on the kids.

In the process, I collected bins full of colorful connections to play well with, just like Legos themselves. Could we say that in the end, I taught myself to let go and Lego?


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JJ Ross, Ed.D., connect everything to everything else. She spent half of her six decades in public schooling, the other at home with kids, and the main thing she has learned in all that time is that the ones who need to be learning new stuff every day aren’t so much the kids in school – it’s the rest of us!