It's September and schools are starting up. What are we thinking about? A friend sent me this article about the importance of play in education.
The article deals with play in the early years, but I would like to broaden the discussion and think about the importance of play in the older grades, and in truth, even in ourselves. When our minds are at play is when the real learning takes place. Einstein played with numbers and thought pictures. It is said that Jacques Cousteau came up with the idea for the aqualung while playing.
You may be asking, “What does storytelling have to do with play?” I contend that stories are the foundation of play and that language is the vehicle of play. I believe this to be true when play takes place in the doll corner, or in a literature discussion group, or in a play writing or poetry writing session. Some of my colleagues can certainly add their own stories to that!
Research shows that children who engage in complex forms of socio-dramatic play have greater language skills than nonplayers, better social skills, more empathy, more imagination, and more of the subtle capacity to know what others mean. They are less aggressive and show more self-control and higher levels of thinking (see article above)
I have also been reading Vivian Paley’s book, A Child’s Work: the Importance of Fantasy Play.
…fantasy play is the glue that binds together all other pursuits, including the early teaching of reading and writing skills…. It is in the development of their themes and characters and plots that children explain their thinking and enable us to wonder who we might become as their teachers. If fantasy play provides the nourishing habitat for the growth of cognitive, narrative, and social connectivity in young children, then it is surely the staging area for our common enterprise: an early school experience that best represents the natural development of young children. (p.8)
Storytellers bring folk tales and fairy tales into the classroom in a unique way; different from books. Tellers and listeners alike engage differently with the oral story as opposed to the read story. The old folk literature deals with real developmental issues children are working through. And when children are given time to play, they are given time to play out their own interpretations. And as the children are reinterpreting the stories they are doing so in language.
Other studies have shown that by the age of three, many children of poverty are already behind in readiness for school, one big concern being little exposure to language.
They (the children) need a solid introduction to books, which most middle-class children have from infancy onwards, and they need to hear language used in conversation, storytelling, song, and verse. Equally important, they need to use language. Play is the foremost way that children use the language they are hearing. (Crisis in the Kindergarten, above)
Through this language play children are using rhymes, rhythm, metaphors, spells, new vocabulary and fresh concepts. They are learning to form and speak questions and opinions, and learning how to hold conversations. They are practicing oral language.
Think of the kindergarten child using ‘meadow’ in his play after hearing The Three Billy Goats Gruff. Or the fifth grader who ponders whether the idea of a magic potion gave a character ‘hope’ in The Tiger’s Whisker. When do we use such beautiful language in today’s world?
I have notebooks full of examples.
- The girl who writes the following poem after hearing The Gunniwolf:
Why for you move
- The whole second grade class dancing in a Congo line to gym class chanting The Name of the Tree is Ungali!
Listening to a story together builds community. There is a shared story we can all reference in play. A friend, a Kindergarten teacher, tells a story.(I had told Tom Tit Tot in her classroom.) She reports, “I feel so badly. I always mix up Frankie’s name. I had his older brother and I keep mixing them up. I hate not remembering his name. But today, I just laughed with him when I made the mistake and said, “nimmy, nimmy, not your name is Frankie!” A shared story playfully eases the situation.
However, we as professional storytellers are not in the classrooms during creative play, whether discussion, poetry play, or block play. The professional teacher is the one who will take the shared oral texts and create an environment where creative language is allowed to flourish. This collaboration between two professionals bringing rich stories and language to students, laying the foundation for creative play, can’t be beat.
Next week I will be thinking about how storytelling encourages children to deal with deep, profound developmental issues.