Playing with Intention

My Rotary Club recently had a presentation on implicit bias that was fascinating. The discussion resonated with a lesson I got from Professor Sinclair Kirby Miller, which I have mentioned in previous posts; “We create, order, and project, our reality moment by moment.” This simple dictum applies to everything from what we think is real that our eyes see to what quantum physics tells us about the cosmos. This same phenomenon applies to we what adults think children’s play is all about.

For example, there have been centuries of debates about human development and the respective roles of nature and nurture. Modern research tells us quite conclusively that during the first five years, children’s behavior is motivated by irresistible biological drives. The experience with the environment these drives produce the content of what children learn. This process of motivation and action is play.

When adults see a child playing with a fire truck or a doll, they project that they are exploring becoming a firefighter or a parent. In other words, the object is the content of the play. Nothing could be further from the truth. What is going on is that the child is engaged in an internal story. The “firetruck” could just as well be a block of wood. The doll could be a stick and a scrap of cloth. For the child, the specificity of the play object is immaterial. The story content of the play need not be and often is not related to fires or parenting.

The pandemic prevents me from being with children while they play. These sad days I rely on Tom Hobson to keep me in touch with their reality. Links to Tom’s books and blogs are posted below, and I encourage you to join me in feasting on their wisdom. You will quickly find that Tom is very candid about the bias he has to overcome daily to understand what the children are actually doing. He has learned that what we project onto children’s play is generally not correct. In his interactions with kids, he has to become very neutral in his comments, or he will hear the dreaded rebuke, “No silly, what we are doing is …”

Tom has learned that a main pillar of his practice is to stand back and observe. This is also the cornerstone of the Anjiplay method of early childhood education. The results of Anjiplay pedagogy is so demonstrably positive that it is beginning to be implemented throughout China.

That children’s learning is primarily play-based is nothing new. This awareness goes as far back as Aristotle, with stops along the way with Vygotsky, Singer, and Hirsh-Pasek and many, many others. What is new is the studies that establish the neurological process by which we construct inaccurate world models.

In an earlier blog, Play is Good Trouble, I wrote about the relationship between play and democracy in the struggle for social justice. The issue of racial inequity is another example of unconscious bias. As a society, we must all commit to work constantly to build the mental tools to reveal the errors in our assumptions. This starts with coming into situations with the knowledge that you know nothing about what is actually before you and preparing your mind to be open. What is required is allowing the time for hearing and observing. We need this practice to be good parents. We need this practice to be a good community.

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