Equity, Promising Practices, School Community

The Pedagogy of Play

As autumn slips into winter, I eagerly anticipate the cold winter days, the long dark evenings, and the inevitable coming of snow. My children, born of the prairies, equally anticipate winter and the endless possibilities snow presents for their play. As I walk to pick up my children from school during the winter months, I marvel at the amazing array of snow forts that make up the landscape of their schoolyard.

Each day my children come home from school with stories of snow fort “culture”. They tell me of the intricate rules and building teams. They tell me of the schoolyard collaboration and of who gathers the snow blocks left by the bulldozer at the edge of the schoolyard. They tell me about who compromises the snow-building community by taking the largest snow blocks for themselves and the consequences of these actions. They tell me about the father who arrived at lunch with an ice-breaking shovel to help children get larger pieces of ice and the schoolyard hysteria that resulted. They are happy, engaged, and excited about their work of play.

Play is important. Environmental educators Sobel and Louv write about the relationship between children and outside play and suggest that early transcendental experiences within nature allow children to develop empathetic orientations towards the natural world.[1] Children who play out-of-doors develop an appreciation for the environment and accordingly develop the groundwork to become stewards of the earth.

Other educators suggest that out-of-doors play activities support many of the skills necessary for adult life including social competence, problem solving, safety, and creative thinking. Cultural critics Wendell Berry and Kay Hymowitz write about the ongoing relationship between how, where, and what our children play and the foundational citizenship and democratic skills developed through the childhood work of play.[2]

As I drive through our city, I have noticed an interesting and alarming phenomenon. While inconsistent, there seems to be an absence of snow forts in schoolyards within low-income communities. Perplexed by this phenomenon I began to explore the ideology of play and socio-economics. A variety of studies indicate that modern children engage in different outdoor activities than children in previous generations. These studies indicate that fewer school-aged children engage in imaginative play and street games (child-initiated games using child-initiated rules such as jump-rope or kick-the-can). Children are increasingly participating in adult-structured activities (play dates, after school sports, lessons), leaving little time for child-initiated activities. Accordingly, the development of skills related to creative play such as cooperation, imagination, creativity, and ownership decrease as responsibility for play is transferred to responsible adults.

Research also indicates that children living within low socio-economic neighbourhoods spend more time watching television, are more sedentary, and spend more time playing video and/or computer games than their higher income counterparts. These factors are linked to the lower health, school engagement, and academic achievement of lower income school-age children.

Obviously, the relationship between play, socio-economics, academic achievement, and pro-social behaviours are very complex. However, it seems possible to suggest that children who are more engaged with adult-directed, structured, technological, or indoor worlds build different personal, social, and academic capacities. It also seems probable that our children are being provided with inequitable futures when the freeing experience of play is not part of the repertoire of all childhood experience.

Sometimes at night, after a large snowfall, when my children are tucked warmly into bed, I sneak into the back alley and join the community of men working silently in the alley. I watch the neighbour confidently baring his stretch of alley with the roar of snow blower, the neighbour who carefully brushes the edges of his brick walkway with a broom and the old man who throws the snow with reckless abandon into messy piles beside his garage. I meekly acquiesce to the fastidious neighbour who admonishes me for letting my piles of snow fall into the roadway and take a moment to chat with another who relishes in our mutual work. I believe our work as children and our work as adults forms us as a society. Through work we learn the rules of our collective spaces, develop community, and negotiate our identities. Through the work of play, our children learn the rules of our collective spaces, develop their own sense of community, and negotiate their emerging identities. I wonder about a childhood that does not include play and how this will change us as a society and as a people.

[1] R. Louv, Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children From Nature-deficit Disorder (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2005); D. Sobel, Childhood and Nature: Design Principles for Educators (New York, New York: Stenhouse Publishers, 2008).

[2] W. Berry, What Are People For? (New York, New York: North Point Press, 1990); K. Hymowitz, Liberation’s Children: Parents and Kids in a Postmodern Age (Lanham, MD: Ivan R. Lee Publishing, 2003).

Meet the Expert(s)

Sheila Giesbrecht

Student Success Consultant, Manitoba Education

Dr. Sheila Giesbrecht is an educator who is interested in program evaluation, social innovation and supporting students within low socioeconomic contexts.

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