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EdTech & Design, Opinion

Defining Play

Are We All On The Same Page?

Sister Valerie Van Cauwenberghe became a school principal in London, Ontario in the late 1960’s, just as the release of the Hall-Dennis report, Living and Learning, was threatening to affect a seismic shift in the way that public education in that province was to be imagined and constituted. Although the report left very few of the foundational stones of the public education system unturned, it was the move towards a more child-centred approach that most will remember as being the defining spirit of the time.

Sister Valerie Van Cauwenberghe became a school principal in London, Ontario in the late 1960’s, just as the release of the Hall-Dennis report, Living and Learning, was threatening to affect a seismic shift in the way that public education in that province was to be imagined and constituted. Although the report left very few of the foundational stones of the public education system unturned, it was the move towards a more child-centred approach that most will remember as being the defining spirit of the time.

While some embraced the recommendations from the report, others balked at the changes proposed, arguing that Hall-Dennis signalled the demise of public education as we knew it.

As for Sister Valerie, she responded by packing her bags and heading to England, not to avoid the winds of change that were blowing through Ontario, but in order to immerse herself in the discovery of how children learn. Her destination was the Institute of Education at the University of London, and the year that she spent there afforded her the opportunity to see children learning and being taught in many different contexts.

Upon her return, Sister Valerie agreed to lead her District’s new department of early learning, a role that allowed her to focus intently on teaching and learning in those critical and formative years in a child’s life.

I had the opportunity to meet with Sister Valerie a few weeks ago in London and talk with her about, among other things, her views on our current efforts to focus on the early years and, in particular, play-based education in the full day Kindergarten. As the dishes were being cleared from our table, Sister Valerie pulled out a card on which she had written the philosophy of play that she had composed upon her return from England over 40 years ago. Powerful in its succinctness, it what will, no doubt, resonate with many. Sister Valerie’s own words:

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CC Photo

Play is the total of all the spontaneous, creative activities in which children freely choose to engage. The urge to teach must not conflict with the desire to learn.

Contrary to my nature, I’ve decided to allow Sister Valerie’s words a little room to breathe before engaging in a whole lot of analysis or commentary. After all, a great deal of experience and reflection went in to constructing what became a type of mantra for the many educators with whom she came in contact in her professional life. Each word is important and adds to the power of the others.

But a few questions, perhaps.

When you read Sister Valerie’s two sentences what resonates most with you? As a teacher? As a parent? As a student?

And, just as important, why do you suppose that is?

In the same way, what do you find disturbing about her definition? Why do you suppose that is?

Finally, what might happen if Sister Valerie’s definition of play became the foundation of our 21st century iterations of play-based learning? What new perspectives and insights might we need in order to live this out?

What other questions emerge for you?

I don’t expect that everyone will agree with this definition of play, but I am hoping that we might devote some thought and conversation to it.