Play is Good Trouble

HS Rock

Photo CNN

“Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”

John Lewis

We have all heard the story about how a frog won’t leave a pot of water if it is heated gradually. First off, that contention is just not true.  But more importantly, it makes the analogy that things before were better and have only grown worse over time. This assumption allows us to believe if we mobilize for change, there is a preexisting condition that will naturally come about. When the issue is self-determination, the myth of gradually becoming accustomed to change is not true as well. I suspect, and much of history and anthropology bear this out, as far back as we can look, there have been times of civil liberty and others of repression.

In today’s America, we can see that the repression of peaceful demonstrators is not that different from Child Protective Services taking children from parents because they allowed them to play on the playground across from their home while at the same time, the mother watched over them from the kitchen window. Forcing children to sit at desks for most of the day to memorize information unrelated to their interests or abilities is just as draconian. When autos are so dominant that children cannot play freely in their neighborhood, or when cars become the new weapon of choice for attacking demonstrators, we can see our society has run amuck. When we cannot distinguish from “peace” officers from boogaloo boys dressed up in camo with multiple machine guns and ammunition strapped on them as these poor guys struggling to come to terms with their impotence, we know that we live in a repressive society.

The thing about repression is that social norms don’t just creep in unbidden. Rather they grow on fertile soil. One of the first agendas of any leader who wants to move the tenor of their society in one direction or the other is to change the educational system of children. This is as true today as it was in the times of the Romans. Children are the fertile soil on which both slavery and freedom spring.

There are many ways that the imbalance in our society can be ameliorated. Confrontation, working from within, and mobilization are all effective. History shows, and the founding fathers knew that education is perhaps the most critical and sustainable change agent. But note that protecting schools is not in the constitution, but a free press and speech are. This is an important observation. The constitution does not guarantee education, but a free press and unfettered inquiry are.

“The constitution does not guarantee compulsory education, but a free press and unfettered inquiry are.”

Hummm, “open unfettered inquiry.” That sounds an awful lot like “play-based” learning. As Tom Hobson, aka Teacher Tom, points out in many of his essays, when children are allowed to play with minimal adult interference, democracy and fairness between children generally blossoms. He is also keen to show that this process is not without challenges for children or for observers who want to spare the participants from pain.

As Lenore Skenazy at Let Grow points out, the change that must happen is regaining trust. Lenore’s message is we can trust our children to roam our community as it is objectively safer than it has ever been. We can trust our children to navigate life without our constant overwatch. This is what a free society does. It trusts its citizens to self-govern.

As Ms. Cheng Xueqin, the founder of Anji Play said so poignantly during the recent Play First Summit; we can also trust children’s “true play” to be a powerful change agent.  I can personally attest to this power as I have seen play as members of playground building crews went on to become school board members and engage in other civic responsibilities. Its power is clear, as the play settings we create require that teachers and parents must stand back because the children become so engrossed in their play that adult direction becomes unnecessary and unwanted.

After the Summit, I was describing to my sister the conversation Ms. Cheng had with her co-founder of the True Play Foundation Jesse Robert Coffino.  While I love my sister deeply, she is an arch-conservative and steadfast supporter of the current occupant of the White House, which makes conversations somewhat guarded. But this time, the conversation took an unexpected turn as she recalled her days as an elementary school teacher. She recounted that as a test, it was her practice at some point during the school year to abruptly leave her classroom unattended for a short period. To her profound joy, she would find on returning her students just as engaged in their projects as they were under her watchful eye. I realized at that moment that our shared commitment to children was, and will be going forward, a bridge we can cross together to reach new common ground.

Advocating for true play is what John Lewis called “making good trouble.”

3 thoughts on “Play is Good Trouble

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