You know it’s a good meeting when a majority of the parents and teachers are barefoot.
It was our final gathering of the year for the Diegueño Book Club, and laughter filled the grassy area in the center of campus. We threw foam horseshoes without much success, if success is measured in ringers or leaners. If, however, the yardstick for accomplishment is having a good time, we were wildly successful.
The laughter continued as we batted a birdie to one another, our badminton skills inversely proportional to the amount of fun we were having.
There in the quad, beneath the flagpole, parents, teachers, and I were playing. Our smiles and talk of what we’d been like as kids brought us closer together, and the heart pumping lunges to reach that birdie made me feel happy to be at Diegueño, surrounded by great people, and having fun.
After our most successful volley of the night, seven continuous bounces of shuttlecock against badminton rackets (it was windy; volleys were tough), we sat down in the shade of one of Diegueño’s trees and shared a jug of water one of our teachers brought from her classroom and a plastic container of chocolate chip cookies. Circled on the grass, we brought out our copies of Stuart Brown’s book Play and started to talk.
We talked about the importance of play, both structured and unstructured, and how different school was today than when we were students. Discussion led to play as it happens on our campus, both in big events like Spirit Day and in classes every week, as students enjoy time and space to be creative, collaborative, and come up with their own approaches to the challenges they face.
Two parents mentioned the “POM” or “problem of the module” that has entered the lexicon of the Diegueño Math Department. Not open ended so much as “open middled,” a math teacher explained, the POM encourages students to notice and wonder, to bring critical thinking to a purposeful challenge, and to work together to find an answer. The result is different than run of the mill “homework,” though the POMs are done outside of the classroom.
I’ll save the homework discussion for another post, but suffice it to say that we all could speak to the difference between daily assignments and more complex opportunities for students to apply the skills they are learning and have learned in class.
The kind folks in our book group listened as I yarned a bit about some of the things I did as a teacher, including Pirate Week and Space Week. Beyond the fun of talking about times when I got to play in the classroom (and beyond), this discussion blossomed into talk of a more academic success we’d seen just a couple of months ago at Diegueño: Pi Day.
Pi Day is really a misnomer; here at Diegueño we celebrated math for a full week in March. Beyond the thoughtful and student driven activities, for me the anticipation, the brainstorming, the excitement to create something fun (and Pi related) were as important as the flashier successes of the event. In the fortnight before the celebration I saw kids engaged, inspired, and showing the sparks of creativity that brought to life unexpected accomplishments.
Acknowledging that not every day can be Pi Day, we talked about everything from PE classes to History, and the value of engagement, hands on activities, and opportunities for the kids to have a voice in how they demonstrate what they are learning. As Brown suggests, “play isn’t the enemy of learning, it’s learning’s partner.” Our group agreed.
Conversation ranged from how we as parents play with kids to the importance of family and community. I won’t tip my hand on all the ideas flying around that tupperware container of diminishing cookies, but as we talked about balance, building community, and helping everyone feel at home, I was inspired by the specific suggestions about how we could do even more to bring parents, students, and all of our school community closer together.
This balance, especially in a world increasingly competitive, and a society that puts extreme pressure on students (as well as moms and dads) around grades, high school classes, and college acceptance, is important, and part of the answer to the question “How can we help families?” comes in the word: play.
I know that as the principal I might raise an eyebrow or two with this next line from Brown’s book, but it resonated with me, and I think with the other folks who were with me on the grass. “Play, by its very nature,” Brown writes, “is a little anarchic. It’s about stepping outside of normal life and breaking normal patterns. It’s about bending rules of thought, action, and behavior.” Within in the safety of school, and under the guidance of adults who care about them, a little unstructured play might just be the balm some kids need to ease the stress they face every day.
This isn’t to say that school should only be games, or that structure is anathema to learning. As our Diegueño Book Club talked, however, we recognized that how we frame what we do on campus (and in the work we assign beyond the schoolhouse walls) matters a lot.
A teacher in our group remembered aloud a quotation from Tom Sawyer: “Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and. Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.” I thought about what that meant to me as someone who has chosen to be an educator. It’s a topic I’ll continue to discuss with my staff and school community.
Reading a book and talking about it at school… I guess I could see how someone might consider that work, but for me, that evening on the lawn, it was most certainly engaging, enlightening, and enjoyable play.