By Chandra Maracle
It’s all fun and games until someone loses an imagination. This is the heart of what’s at stake in the debate over children’s education. Play? Academics? Technology? Culture? Language? What are parents to do when deciding where to send their children to school, if at all?
These were some of the core issues discussed when co-founding Skaronhyaseko:wa Tyohterakentko:wa Tsi Yontaweya’tahkwa/The Everlasting Tree School in 2010. “ETS” is a Waldorf-inspired Kanyen’keha (“Mohawk”) initiative where creative free play is emphasized, particularly in the early childhood room.
You might say that the curriculum is, in part, the imaginations of the children themselves, as they are given several hours each day in well-planned environments which encourage free play both indoors and out. Rudolph Steiner, the founder of what has become known as Waldorf Education, said, “Play is the work of the small child.”
Education today can be likened to a race to fill the children’s heads like buckets with knowledge and facts in the hopes that they will increase test scores and perhaps funding for newer and more stuff. Many educators however are rethinking, and re-learning that play is a necessity for the healthy physical and mental development of the children in their care.
Researchers and policy makers as well are realizing that play is not a waste of time, or something to do in the meantime, rather it is the most effective use of time for young children in the long run. Thomas Paplawski, a Waldorf regular, explains that “play helps them to develop an essential thinking skill that teacher-centered instruction does not encourage, a skill that psychologists call executive function, the core of which is the ability to self- regulate, to control emotions and behavior, resist impulses, and exercise self-discipline. Executive function also includes flexibility in thinking and strong memory.”
This can be seen as wonderfully parallel to the ancient, brilliant wisdom of the traditional Haudenosaunee thought and philosophy of Sken:nen (a sense of personal peacefulness when one is in control of one’s emotions), Kasa’tstenshera (a sense of personal strength and moral fortitude when one exercises self-discipline), and Ka’nikonhri:yo (a sense of personal good/strong/healthy mindedness when one is flexible in thinking with strong memory).
Proper, purposefully planned play, then, can be a precursor to a healthy, well-functioning community and society.
Traditional Haudenosaunee knowledge also tells us that children come to us from the spirit world. Similarly in anthroposophy, the philosophy upon which Waldorf Education is based, the first stage of life, roughly seven years, involves the process of incarnation, or growing into the earthly, human body.
Play, then, that involves and allows for unrestricted, unhindered movement of the child’s body will best set the stage for solidly grounding the child to the earth, as well as growing into a healthy adult. Yet another tragedy of the Residential School era is that it robbed generations of children from a healthy, joyful childhood filled with play and freedom of movement, and therefore the opportunity to develop the aforementioned capacities. Along with a host of other de-humanizing tactics on the agenda of assimilation was obedience, the exact opposite of free and creative thinking. Perhaps play then, is the ultimate decolonization strategy!
May we plan the next conference to focus on creating a new history of historical joy, rather than historical trauma? Let’s build the adult “playgrounds” to offer to those who were neglected or simply to remind ourselves of the beauty and wonder and FUN that is supposed to surround our children, and all of us, as we grow into bigger, older children.
I am very much looking forward to the upcoming day of play and merriment. After all, he or she who becomes a healthy, contented individual able to find peace and joy has won the game of life. Let’s be the community that plays together and stays together. Let the games begin!