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Play Ethic

Crowding creative play out of the school day denies children an essential form of learning. Could it also threaten the very foundation of our society?


By Deborah Meier, Brenda S. Engel, and Beth Taylor

Excerpted from Playing for Keeps: Life and Learning on a Public School Playground, with permission of the publisher.

Aspects of Play: Wishful Thinking


Once upon a time, before education was mandated and became a public responsibility, children witnessed and participated closely in the daily life of home and community. In the process, they developed some understanding of how things worked in the adult world—from the concrete, physical experiences of starting a fire, drawing water, or spinning yarn to the more distant and general rules governing family authority, relationships, and community responsibilities. Children’s lives then, though integrally involved in the adult world, were, of course, far from ideal. Their families suffered from multiple hardships and deprivations, and child labor was an essential part of the economy.

Most of us would not trade those times for ours. Nonetheless, some aspects of modern life bring different kinds of deprivations for children as they spend less time in the company of adults and participate less in useful domestic tasks or social community. Their lives are increasingly filled with virtual realities. Children spend long hours sitting in front of TV screens seeing moving images of a created world when they have barely had a chance to experience, or explore firsthand, the real one. The basic elements of education—a feel for the surrounding physical and social/political structures—have been bypassed. There is little space, time, or opportunity for preschool children to experiment and explore; there is little encouragement to invent, envision other worlds, exercise creative imagination, even to seriously think. Nor do the toys children are given encourage invention or imagination; most have limited possibilities and are designed to develop specific skills or abilities judged necessary for school success. Thus, most children arrive in elementary school without the kind of knowledge we believe furthers the development of strong, independent learners and future members of a democratic society.


In view of human history, the idea of a democratic society may seem at times counterintuitive and naive. In fact, the practice of true democracy still retains some aura of naive idealism, of an unrealistic dream, of “wishful thinking.” Democracy rests on unproven assumptions about the ability of ordinary people to govern themselves. Nonetheless, if democracy still seems at times an idealistic dream, better to hope and struggle for it than accept its defeat, better to live by utopian dreams than dystopian nightmares, better to believe in the struggle for a better world than believe it cannot happen.

My (Deborah’s) own hopes and ongoing optimism are supported by my experiences as a kindergarten and Head Start teacher in the schools on the South Side of Chicago, in a Head Start center in Philadelphia, and in kindergarten classrooms in Harlem in New York City. Here I found the basis for a renewed conviction that democracy is, at the very least, possible.

When 5-year-old Darrell insisted that rocks were indeed “alive” and convinced his classmates that this was so, he was practicing habits that were far more important than the lesson about living versus nonliving things that was the object of my lesson plan. He was “playing with” the quite sophisticated concept of “livingness” and, furthermore, was taking responsibility for his own ideas.

Today, 40 years later, when I revisit these “children’s gardens,” I find Darrell’s kind of imagination and lively independent-mindedness under assault. Thoughtful exchanges with young children depend on a quality of childhood that I assumed was timeless—the serious (and courageous) commitment to ideas. Today, however, in order to continue feeling optimistic about the future of democracy, we find we need to actively protect these qualities of childhood, protect the existence of true “kindergartens” in which young children can play freely with both materials and ideas.

Leaving no time or space in education for children’s “playful” efforts to make sense of the world risks the future not only of poetry and science but also of our political liberties. The habits of playfulness in early life are the essential foundations upon which we can build a K–12 education that would foster, nourish, and sustain the apparent “absurdity” of democracy.


Schoolchildren’s creative play can contribute in significant ways to their academic and social/political education as they explore together ideas, materials, and relationships. Games—those invented in the moment, inherited through tradition, or directed by a teacher—are also relevant to growth and learning. For instance, children’s deep concern with issues of “fairness” has implications for the development and practice of democracy in America. The familiar playground cry “That’s not fair!” can evolve from an individual’s sense of personal outrage, whether justified or not, to a broader concern with “fairness” for the whole group; then, later on, from the same understanding can come, for example, a deeper appreciation of the causes of the American Revolution.

Looking more analytically at education for democracy in schools brings up a basic, important question: Does a commitment to fairness in an immediate situation extend to a general concept of equity—of fairness for all, not just for those in this place and under these circumstances? We know that the notion of equity has shallow roots in most civilizations with which we are familiar, including our own, and freedom, for which we all yearn, remains a fragile concept open to different interpretations and modifications. The practice of democracy, which depends on fairness, equity, and freedom, is no more stable than these, its foundations. Winston Churchill once said about democracy, “It’s a thoroughly flawed and absurd idea,” but then added, “until one considers the alternatives.”

The continuing viability of democratic institutions can’t depend entirely on an established body of laws; it requires, in addition, daily practice—inculcated habits of thought and behavior. These habits can be articulated and intentionally practiced in educational settings.

The future of democracy, in my view, depends on “wishful thinking” in the positive sense, on playing with ideas and being able to imagine better solutions. As adults, we need to cultivate the habit of taking leaps beyond our own self-interest and kinship. It is from such thinking that new realities are invented. If we close ourselves off to the possibility that rocks might be alive, we will lose those opportunities and likely, with them, democracy itself.


I [Beth] wanted to be present at play time to help make it a valuable time for all and, by observing the children, to get to know them better and share my observations with teachers. I was outside with kindergartners through fifth graders the first year and eventually, as the school grew, with kindergartners through eighth graders.

During the first days of school, the children ran around wildly, some falling and skinning knees on the steps or falling off the tree. There was a lot of crying. So, we met—children and adults—and talked about the fact that some children were being hurt and frightened and that the school was responsible for the safety of all. What should we do? Everyone agreed that pushing people over or hitting was wrong. I pointed out that it was often difficult in an exciting chase not to push or hit and that people were likely to get hurt, especially when there were walls to bump into and other children playing on the steps and under the tree. A few children, who had fallen, thought that chasing games were dangerous. I said that, since there was not enough room on the grassy areas for chasing games and that, though children could run up and down the slope, chasing games should be kept to the hardtop. Though several boys objected, claiming that chasing was fun, gradually, as they became involved in projects and imaginative play, they confined chasing games to the hardtop. At the beginning of each school year, new students often needed to have this understanding explained to them. Everyone agreed, when we met together from time to time, that play time should be fun for all and that adults shared responsibility for making this possible.

As problems arose over the years, as they inevitably do when large groups are together in a limited area, we would meet with the children involved in a particular dispute and talk about what to do. Sometimes I laid out rules in response to a particular situation; sometimes children recognized the need for a general rule. There were problems, for instance, with jump ropes: A child was tied up with a rope because a hunter had caught a wild animal; the police caught a dangerous robber and tied him up; a horse needed rope reins in order to gallop around; a rope tied to a branch was a swing. Using jump ropes in these ways was clearly dangerous. When no children agreed, I asserted my authority, reminding them that adults were responsible for their safety and that ropes were to be used only for jumping.


Sometimes the children took the initiative in setting limits. The care of the lilac tree, overhanging the wall above the hardtop, was an early concern. The children loved to swing on it and drop down. One day when a child was swinging, a branch broke. Children who had been playing house under the tree were angry and sad and took me to see what had happened. I showed them the buds on the tips of branches and told them these would be flowers in the spring if no more branches were broken. So another rule was made, this time by the children—no climbing on the lilac tree. Children enforced this rule vigorously. When the tree flowered in May, children shouted, “Come and see.” When a child would climb on the lilac in the winter, another would tell her to get down because the tree would have flowers in the spring.

We worked together to develop a play-area culture based partly on children’s implicit sense of fairness. When children began to dig a hole near the fence, using hoes, shovels, and rakes that had been bought for gardening, arguments arose about who could use them. It was obvious that there were not enough tools (or space) at one time for everyone who wanted to dig. Some tried to wrest tools from others. Children complained that other children did not allow them a turn. The boys who started the hole thought they should be the only ones to dig. Again, we met and I asked, “What should we do?” “Take turns” came from a chorus of children. “But how?” After some disagreements and angry pulling away of tools, we agreed that those who wanted to dig each play time should have a chance. If all the shovels were in use, other children should stand by and wait to take a turn. It was agreed that, to avoid accidents, hoes and shovels should not be raised more than shoulder-high. During these discussions, the digging stopped; it usually resumed without any more problems.


In addition to protection from physical dangers, children sometimes needed protection from emotional stress. In the first months of school, older children made fun of some of the younger children’s play: “Don’t you know a unicorn is not real?” The older children needed to learn what it was like to “walk in someone else’s shoes,” which, with practice and the occasional intervention of adults, they gradually did learn. Understanding another’s point of view is a principle of both the indoor and outdoor cultures at the Mission Hill School, one of the five habits of mind. Over time, this view was absorbed; there were fewer and fewer examples of hurtful words or sudden bursts of anger.


We all grew close, and children knew they had friends who would join them in their pretend play when mud could be soup, and a wall a motorcycle, a leaf a baby, and the beech tree a beloved creature to be hugged or a monster to be feared. They also knew they were free to explore and to ask what something was and to question other children: “What are you doing?” and “Can I play?”

Over the years, the children grew in their ability to play and work together. Children and adults built a community of trust, negotiating rules for safety and fairness. I saw the children develop respect for one another’s play, accomplishments, interests, and differences. They were, of course, learning to do this in the classrooms, too, but on the playground an observer could more easily stand back and watch how individuals and groups of children of different ages responded to physical, intellectual, and social challenges.The school’s unkempt, messy (to adult eyes) playground provided opportunities not offered in typical playgrounds with swings, slides, and climbing frames—all permanent structures that, although they can be enjoyed, don’t easily lend themselves to imaginative transformations. It is important to emphasize, however, that this positive experience outside at recess did not just happen—it was the result of a conscious effort to work with the children to establish an environment that gave them the freedom to invent and explore and at the same time feel safe and supported

Wondering About the Future

In the process of turning schools into competitive institutions, “racing to the top,” we end up threatening the spirit of childhood. Because of our own limited histories and the generally accepted language around schooling—“grade level,” ”ahead or behind,” “competent or proficient,” “differentiated learning”—we begin to lose sight of what education means. These become the only words for describing children in school—children like those we observe playing in this book. “Knowing children well” becomes a matter of looking at test data.

Standardized tests are almost explicitly designed to underplay both intuition and imagination. Through years of training in seeking the “one-and- only” right answer, we’ve taught children to ignore the possibilities that so-called wrong answers embody. At a time in history when we are crying out for creative alternatives to seemingly intransigent problems, it may prove more perilous than we imagine to cut off at an early age the natural human tendency to seek alternatives, to imagine other viewpoints, to invent solutions that take into account the “wrong” but intriguing answers. Without being able to read the future, we suspect that early-childhood play and imagination may be more central to our viability as a species than current educational practice suggests.

Some degree of compliance and “standardization” (conforming to the standards of others) is, of course, part of growing up as members of society. However, in school, with the consent of children’s families and communities, we can encourage children to continue playing: to imagine, to speculate about the world around them, to turn things upside down and around and envision new possibilities, to act as though we had infinite choices—and we might actually discover much that remains now hidden to us.

Deborah Meier has spent almost five decades working in public education as a teacher, writer, and public advocate. She is currently a Senior Scholar in the faculty of the Steinhardt School of Education at New York University.

Brenda S. Engel has taught elementary school art and was on the faculty of Lesley University in Cambridge, MA.

Beth Taylor has taught in preschool through college, including in teacher training, program evaluation, early childhood education, and teaching at the Mission Hill School in Boston.

Used with permission from the Publisher.  From Meier et al., Playing for Keeps: Life and Learning on a Public School Playground, New York: Teachers College Press, © 2010 by Teachers College, Columbia University.  All rights reserved. To order copies visit or call (800) 575-6566.

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