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Play Dead

A group of folks I greatly respect, over at Cooperative Catalyst, has been blog-bouncing the concept of play around: the loss of play from ordinary early-childhood curricula, the diminishing role given to play in an era of test-based accountability, the common lack of understanding of the vital importance of play in making learning stick. It's a big, juicy topic. And of course, I want to play.

Here's my thinking: Play is not just for little kids. And it's not just about recess (although eliminating recess is a bone-headed policy that's not only mean-spirited but counterproductive on all meaningful indicators of academic success).

Another thought: Everyone says play is a great thing. Create! Invent! Put a ping-pong table in your lobby! But once the classroom doors close, many teachers are fearful of play. And rightfully so. Not only because their professional evaluations and livelihood are now legally linked to a mandate to produce satisfactory hard numerical data-- but open-ended play is not generally The Way We Do Things.

Unless they're teaching pre-school (and sometimes not even then), any teacher who focuses on play as regular pedagogical strategy is suspect. So much core knowledge to be absorbed and squeezed back out, so many discrete skills to be tested. Who has time for laughter and playing games? And isn't play...inefficient, as a means of learning?

In schools, and in the grim, we're-behind education policy discourse, a teacher who encourages students of any age to poke at ideas, learn from mistakes, and approach established disciplinary content as a treasure chest to explore is seen as disorganized. Non-linear. Ineffective. Look at the Common Core Standards' recommendation that students stop reading so much useless fiction. Why would teachers waste time reading children stories, when they could be transmitting important, testable facts?

I am a music teacher--theoretically a creative art--but can state categorically that music, as traditionally taught in secondary schools, is not very imaginative or playful at all. Ironic--since what do kids do in the band room? Play. School music programs tend to become performance-oriented only, however--and often rigorously competitive.

Granted, there is an important body of information and skills in music. The more of that disciplinary knowledge students have mastered, and the more proficiency they develop, the greater their ability to capably perform interesting and satisfying music. But--as anyone who's ever weaseled their mother into quitting piano lessons knows-- there is a distinct line between just having fun with music and being compelled to practice, perform or excel.

The trick in pushing children to develop musical competency is to balance acquisition of new skills with pleasure--to keep having fun. Why should I memorize scales (or multiplication tables or narrative genres)? Because the joy of playing music with others, problem-solving, or writing a story is enhanced. Practicing skills--creatively playing with your new abilities-- is vastly more important than evaluating or comparing them. Adding a dash of pleasure embeds learning, too.

There's a increasing reluctance among teachers to offer students materials and ideas as tools for experimentation, as stuff to play with, with no graded assessment product expected. The National Standards for Music Education include composition, often overlooked in school music programs focused on replicating already-created music with a high degree of perfection. Hey--I'm in favor of pursuing excellence, and exposing students to diverse, high-quality musical literature. But too much of what we do in education revolves around reproducing and reiterating, rather than playful creation.

Why? Because teachers feel confident about teaching to clearly defined, measurable content standards with fidelity--and uncertain about how to make a productive space for student creativity. It's nerve-wracking to turn kids loose to create. How do you structure that lesson? What's the subject matter takeaway? What if your students create inferior products (as they certainly will, at first)? Must you grade them?

I say this from personal experience. It took lots of experimentation to figure out how to teach composition to middle schoolers, which I was inspired to do by--yes--national standards. I had to deal with "just tell me what to do" and "I don't get this" and "can't I just do a report?" We persisted, however. And eventually, it was fun, playing with our acquired musical skills, creating new music--recording it on audio, video, electronic keyboard discs and paper.

Some students performed their compositions live, including a fabulous little rock trio, playing the blues. One of my students asked if she could choreograph a dance to a song she'd recorded on the Clavinova, then perform it for her class.

As she was dancing, the principal walked in. The class was seated, quietly, around the cleared center of the band room, watching. When she finished, they gave her a sincere round of applause. And the principal called me out into the hall. What's going on? he said. You having a little talent show? A reward for good behavior or something?

I explained that I was teaching composition. Melody, harmony, style, improvisation, rhythm and creativity. It's in the standards, I said. I felt defensive. Hmmmph, he said.

What's happened to play, in your classroom?

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