by Dr. Lenisa Joseph, CREN Guest Contributor
Editor's note: The University of the West Indies Family Development Centre, presented the symposium ‘Enhancing Children’s Engagement in Social and Cognitive Activities’ in March 2017. Professor Jaipaul Roopnarine, Professor James Johnson and Professor Michael Patte, renowned authors on Play and Early Childhood, engaged participants on the following topics: play in attaining social skills and nation building in young children and implementation strategies for teachers and parents to effect quality learning through play and loose parts. Dr. Lenisa Joseph, Visiting Professor of Early Childhood and Special Education at Duquesne University, was invited to attend the symposium. She later engaged the presenters while sharing a meal. She shares her gleanings in this article.
I was really happy to have attended this symposium. Thank you to the team at The UWI Family Development Centre for the opportunity. During the symposium, Dr. Johnson and Dr. Patte distributed bags of materials (pipe cleaners, paper clips, bottle caps, strips of paper etc.) and invited participants to engage with the materials first individually, then with peers. Participants became absorbed with their materials, generating simple and elaborate creations. The reflections about this engagement were very telling. Many participants commented on feeling lost or totally engrossed in the experience and not wanting to be disturbed. During a time of sharing, one participant’s comment resonated through the room. This educator shared through teary eyes, “I felt free and relaxed. I don’t think I allow my children to play. I don’t allow them to be free.” I was curious to learn from Dr. Johnson and Dr. Patte about the potential of adult play activities like these to change negative conceptions of allowing children to play, so at lunch I asked them for their thoughts. Presented here are summaries of their responses with some of the direct quotes.
The question posed was: Is there potential for adult play with open-ended materials (i.e. loose parts) to change the negative concept of allowing children to play at school?
Dr. Johnson responded saying: I think that play reminds adults of their roots as children. The hope is that if you are really getting into the play mode with these materials, you recognise or sense some form of liberation as you are experiencing play. The activity could be very valuable in reminding you of how important play was to you as a child because play is meaningful. What is meaningful for a child is so important in the child’s learning. Often lessons are conceptualised from what is meaningful for the teacher. But, when children get chances to have related activity or projects, they have the opportunity to create a meaningful situation for themselves. Some teachers tell me that they may practice their school work in play mode; one that was meaningful for the teacher as it related to the lesson and has meaning for the kids. When kids have the chance for child-initiated play activities, they might actually want to learn what the teacher was teaching. For example, they will want to know about that letter because it is meaningful to them as they play at building a post office.
Dr. Johnson continued to explain that when adults play with the open-ended materials which are conducive to all types of arrangements, “The idea is that ‘the play’ would reignite this appreciation for the feeling about play and how vital an ingredient it is for children’s creation of meaningful situations for themselves and promote a greater appreciation for the relevance of that activity.”
In closing the response to this question, Dr. Johnson who has over forty (40) years of experience teaching graduate and undergraduate classes discussed the need to be a PIE teacher. I did not understand what he meant and pressed him to explain. He shared, “I tell my students that you have to be a PIE teacher. Teachers need to Provide Information and Encourage engagement. You have to provide information - that is an important role as a teacher. You then need to round this information out, with chances for play with the information, so that the children can make something meaningful from what was taught - because that is when the information really sinks in. During play is when they are really learning.”
In responding to the same question, Dr. Patte invited me to recall a scene from the Disney movie Ratatouille. The scene is when food critic Anton Ego visits chef Gateau’s restaurant. Ego is a nasty critic whose review could either make or break a restaurant. He is presented with a simple peasant meal by the chef. He takes a bite and is immediately transported to a time when he was a little boy, smelling the food his mother prepared, sitting in his peasant home with his mother stroking his face. Tasting the food triggers a happy memory, such that he has an out-of-body experience, an experience that warped him back forty or fifty years. You can view a clip of the scene on YouTube here.
This is the type of experience Dr. Patte believes many persons have when engaging in adult play activities with open-ended materials. Dr. Patte explained, “The activity provides them the opportunity to truly be engrossed and get lost. That notion of flow, where time and space become irrelevant and you are just engaged in the activity.” The notion of flow which Dr. Patte referred to comes from the work of psychologist Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Dr. Csikszentmihalyi describes flow as a heightened state of consciousness in which there is total immersion and involvement in the activity at hand.
Dr. Patte also explored the notion that older students do not play. He shared that he often asks his undergraduate students about activities which they do for no other purpose than enjoyment and that they often have a difficult time finding an answer.
Hello reader: Please pause for a moment. Can you think of an activity which you do for no other reason other than you simply enjoy it?
Play, leisure and recreation
As those sharing the meal answered this question, the notion of play, leisure and recreation/sport arose. What is the distinction between play, leisure and recreation/sport? Our lunch conversation did not offer any definition so I have presented a brief explanation. All three words denote having fun. Play seems to connote activity that is outside the sphere of the ordinary which creates a temporary reality. Play is self-expression for its own sake (Freysinger, V.J. & Kelly, J.R. 2004). Leisure refers to time spent doing activities which are not obligatory. Leisure activities are done for relaxation, diversion, broadening knowledge and they allow for the free exercise of the creative capacity. Recreation encompasses organised activity that restores body, mind and spirit. The presenters focused on cautioning that while many adult activities are leisure, not all leisure is necessarily play.
Dr. Patte raised the issue of the use of the word ‘play’ in the US context, sharing that teachers struggle with allowing children to play and therefore end up attempting to justify play. In his words, “Teachers talk about the impact on executive functioning and how play impacts literacy development. Teachers in the USA are often left having to justify why play is important for a certain type of development. Play becomes progress rhetoric.” Dr. Patte then raised the importance of children having time throughout the course of the day to play as promoted by such researchers as Anthony Pellegrini and Peter Smith. According to Dr. Patte, these noted researchers and many others advocate for “thirty to forty minutes of instruction and then a fifteen-minute break. I think they do that in Finland actually. But it seems that in the USA any kind of extracurricular activity that takes time away from academic learning has been pushed to the periphery and they want to pack in more and more. And they think that is going to make children smarter so they do better on the assessments. That is just so misguided. It's not based on empirical evidence - it's more ideological in nature.” Noting that peer pressure is significant, Dr. Patte said that making a stand against or any strong opposition to the ideology is very hard.
We chatted a bit about the US law No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the National Association on the Education of Young Children’s (NAEYC) position on Developmentally Appropriate Practice (DAP). The general consensus from these professors was that these policies and position statements do not reflect the voice of the child. Dr. Roopnarine said, “DAP is an adult perspective about what children should be doing. It is constructed from an adult perspective. Where is the child’s voice?”
Dr. Patte commented, “I think we've really gotten away from the emergent curriculum, something coming in from the interest and desires of children.” He then shared his personal experience of leaving public education. I identified with some of the challenges mentioned. In a remorseful tone he shared, “All of that extracurricular stuff that we used to do to develop a sense of culture in our school was taken away. The artistic side of teaching seems to be gone. I’ll use a Harry Potter metaphor - it is as if a Dementor is sucking the soul out of kids.”
Teachers, what ideas can you share to link subject content to play activities? Can these play activities be extended outside the classroom to foster family engagement?
The situation in Trinidad and Tobago mirrors similar features to the US experience. I asked my colleagues, “How do we then influence our policy makers and government officials to see the value in play in creating an improved society?”
Both Dr. Johnson and Dr. Roopnarine agreed that there is a need for more research into play. Dr. Roopnarine shared, “I think the developmental scientists have to do more longitudinal research studies.” He referred to a particular study in which children in kindergarten were randomly assigned to either a play-based or a traditional literacy based curriculum. The researchers, he offered, had trouble because the public school administrators were reluctant to add a treatment that was play. Administrators were okay with acting out fairy tales as a form of play. Acting out fairy tales became the play-based treatment. In this longitudinal study which was not named, the researchers followed the students from Kindergarten through to second grade and found a significant treatment effect. The children involved in the programme that had pedagogy of play embedded within it, outperformed the children in the comparison group. Dr. Roopnarine thinks more studies like these could lead to some generalisations. Advocates could then make propositions based on the generalisations and growing evidence that it is better to have children play.
Dr. Patte agreed with the need for research but felt there is a healthy body of research already present. “I agree,” he said, “But there are also a lot of prominent organisations; for example, the American Academy of Paediatrics, the American Psychological Association, the Association for the study of Play have come out with very strong positions that are research based. It is like the scales are out of whack, there is no balance. I think we need to begin with the family…the parents.”
Around the table everyone nodded their heads.
“I think you are right,” Dr. Roopnarine responded. He then continued, “I think Trinidad needs that…It (promoting play) has to start early, it has to start prior to the birth of the child…The promotion of play needs to start prior to birth. Men (and women too) need to be educated in child rearing, parenting, relationship building and engagement. This education needs to continue through the infancy period into the preschool years.”
No one is suggesting that play is a panacea for all the ills in society. Rather the conversation suggested that the further away societies removed themselves from embracing play and affording children the opportunities to play, the more involved the challenges seemed to be.
Readers, what specific actions can you take to provide more opportunities for play in your current situation?
Freysinger, V. J., & Kelly, J. R. (2004).21st century leisure: Current issues. Venture Pub.
Dr. Lenisa N. Joseph is Visiting Assistant Professor of Special Education. She is a Fulbright recipient and completed her Doctorate at the University of Maryland College Park in 2014. Prior to joining Duquesne University, she was a faculty member at Alfred University and Research Fellow at University of Maryland.
Dr. Joseph is a former teacher, special educator and head of department. She has developed and taught several undergraduate and graduate courses including face-to-face, online, and supervisory formats. Additionally, she has also developed and delivered several academic and professional development courses for graduate students and educators. She has been a consultant with organisations such as USAID and the RISE Institute.
Dr. Joseph's research interests include the development, implementation, and evaluation of inclusion services for young children with special needs and those at risk in both school and community settings. She is in the fledging stages for developing a grant for intervention services for young children with disabilities in Trinidad and Tobago.