Monday, 8 March 2021

The Place and Role of 'Play' in Schooling?

My title might seem surprising to some readers. If so, I'm pleased! The title has worked a treat, and hopefully, I've got your attention. But the title isn't just a trick to get you to open the post. I wanted to discuss just how important play is for children and adults. If you look in the index to my book, you won't see a single entry for 'play'. Shame on me! But the place of play is very important at every level off education (preschool to tertiary) and IS reflected in the book. Play is spoken of in varied places, because it is a critical part of learning for adults as well as children. Have you ever heard children and adults saying things such as the following:

"I'm not sure what I'll write, but I want to play with some ideas, and see where they take me."

"I use my scrap book to doodle, sketch and experiment with ideas."

"I need time just to sort out my ideas."

"I'm lacking inspiration today, I need some space to think and ponder."

Every one of these comments can be responded to with the words, then "take some time to play around with your ideas."

One of my academic heroes in life was Donald Murray, who was without a doubt, one of the greatest teachers of writing and could write himself. In fact, Murray was awarded the Pulitzer prize for editorial writing at the age of 29. Murray understood the need for all writers and thinkers to have space and time in which to play with ideas, daydream, experiment, contemplate, and toss ideas around with other writers, learners and friends. He was aware more than most, how important play is to writing and learning. 

"I am never bored. I overhear what is said and not said, delight in irony and contradiction, relish answers without questions and questions without answers, take note of what is and what should be, what was and what may be. I imagine, speculate, make believe, remember, reflect. I am always traitor to the predictable, always welcoming to the unexpected…."

One of my greatest disappointments in life as an aging teacher, is that the place of play, experimentation and messing around with ideas, has almost no place within most of the classrooms and schools I visit. Why? Because our schools are driven by tests, reviews goals and external assessments. 

How sad Friedrich Froebel would be if he could see us now! Froebel was a German educator who created the concept of the ‘kindergarten’, believing that “play is the highest expression of human development in childhood, for it alone is the free expression of what is in a child’s soul.”

Could I encourage you to return to my framework and think again on the following?

Principle 8 - Do we create opportunities for students to take responsibility for learning?

Principle 9 - Do we foster development of the imagination and creativity?

Principle 10 - Do we encourage risk-taking and problem-solving in all learners?

And while you consider the above, remember also that play does much more than simply help our children to create and learn. 

Educators at your child’s early childhood education and care service might have told you that they use a ‘play based’ approach for children’s learning and development. But as well, play can help our children to grow as people. What do I mean by this? Scott Eberle says it pretty well in the following quote:

"Much of the pleasure we derive from play is social in nature, and play strengthens our social skills. Play propagates itself in our close groups, strengthening old acquaintanceships and rewarding us with new friendships. These bonds shore up our societies with common associations, common experiences, and common purposes. Playing also deliberately rearranges our relationships and so enhances our social wit. At play we learn to read others’ intentions. And by playing we learn to deflect and defuse conflict." 

Could I encourage all of my readers NOT to forget the power and importance of play.


Scott G. Eberle, The Elements of Play: Toward a Philosophy and a Definition of Play, pp 214-233, American Journal of Play, Winter, 2014, pp. 226

Monday, 25 January 2021

Can the Christian School Serve as its Own Apologetic?

Have you ever met a person of faith and been so impressed by them that you say quietly to yourself, "I could never be as good as him or her"? And when you met them, or spent time with them over a longer period, did you quietly distance yourself from them, or did you find yourself being drawn to the person, wanting something of what they seemed to have in their life? I won't share my personal testimony of coming to faith here, but I will say that it wasn't till I was 31 years of age that I came to faith. In large part God used the lives of a number of people who I knew, to challenge me to consider what was central to my life. For a long time, I looked at Christians critically and thought, I can't be like him or her. In time, some people did have an impact on me. And they did this because, in a sense, they were their own "apologetic for Christ". In time, instead of ridiculing and running from them, I found myself being attracted to them and their lives.

In Chapter 2 of my book 'Pedagogy and Education for Life: A Christian Reframing of Teaching, Learning, And Formation', I talk about education being the "whole of life of a community". As Christians and believers in God we are in a sense our own apologetic. The school community likewise can serve this apologetic function. The very lives of Christian students and teachers can be a witness to the things they believe. The foundation of their faith of course, is God and the Savior in whom we trust. So too our faith-based schools and communities can serve as their own apologetic. The Apostle Peter challenged the early church to:

"Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us." 1 Peter 2:12 

He didn't do this because the observation of people of faith is the way God saves us. Nor was he talking about social action. No! Nothing could be further from the truth. Rather, our observations of people who live with God at the centre, are part of the way God awakens in us the reality that this life is not all there is. He expects us to place him at the centre of our lives.

This is a serious challenge for faith-based schools, because as I've already written in previous posts, it's easy for our Christian schools to lose sight of the fact that the standing of our students before God is far more important than their standing in academic rankings.

In just two days most Australian children will go back to school. Their families have the choice to send them to government run 'public' free government run education, or private largely faith-based schools if they can afford them. You can be certain that there will be different priorities for all of them. Could I suggest you ask yourself a few key questions as you visit and consider the school website, prospectus and comments made by the principal and staff? What does the school you are considering say are their priorities and unique characteristics?

If you're a pedant like I can be, you might even count the number of times the following things are mentioned:

  • Academic achievements
  • Sporting achievements
  • Cultural activities
  • Teacher quality
  • Discipline
  • Post school achievements of the alumni
  • Quality of the staff
  • Non-academic achievements of the students

Once you've finished considering the above, consider how often the following are mentioned:

  • The faith-based foundations of the school
  • The importance of Christian character development
  • The priority given to growth in faith
  • The support and discipling of students of faith
  • Worship at school
  • Christian activities in the school 

Why have I stressed the above? Because if the school is serving as its own apologetic, it will show! What do I mean by this? Is the school promoting the truth of Christianity, God's sovereign control of his world and our place and purpose within it as his children? The things that are talked about in any school reflect the things that are important to the teachers and students. Try to be less impressed by the quality of the buildings, the sporting facilities and the well-groomed playgrounds. Look instead to the quality and faith of the teachers and the executive and the character of the students you are able to observe who graduated from the school. Is the education offered in the Christian school set within the "whole of life in the school, and is this in turn situated within the child’s life that transcends varied and multiple communities of practice, both real and virtual"? If you visit the school, ask students "what's so good about this school"? The answers they give might offer a different perspective compared to the prospectus or website.

I quote Bernard Meland in my book, who suggests that the ultimate goal of education is not technical information, useful practices, or specific moral values, but a search for a “higher goodness.” Our schools are to provide space for developing our students in other ways that are also reflective, imaginative, and spiritual. The education we offer that truly matters - i.e. growth in character shaped by God - is situated within the child’s complete life which transcends varied and multiple communities of practice, both real and virtual. As you consider the best school for your child think about these things.