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Play and Early Childhood Education

I feel fortunate in getting the opportunity to take a class with one of my favorite researchers and author - Dr James Johnson. The class is called 'Play and Early Childhoood Education' - and it's not only interesting because of my research interests in early ed, but because as a parent it's hard to understand what's the best way to raise a child. Every family has their own parenting style, their own limitations, and to read books and journal articles on what childhood "must look like" is both amusing and terrifying.

One researcher whose ideas struck out to me is Martha Wolfenstein, who in 1951, much before invention of Facebook, said something that was ahead of her times and very relevant to our lives today - Fun Mortality.

Fun Mortality is an ethic that encourages fun but makes it obligatory - that you must "do fun things in order to be perceived as a fun person" Something that is clearly visible in Childhood of today - as parents we document anything remotely fun our kids do. Comedian Jim Gaffigan says "I have more pictures of my children than my father ever looked at me"

It's funny that in order to let your child have an unstructured, fun experience at school with less work, you must pay more to get in a Montessori or Waldorf style school. And the ones that are more affordable or free public education - is where there is more work and less play. Blame a broken education system, but I will save that rant for later.

A playful life is expensive, and we're sending the message to our society that the rich can afford to learn from drum circles, glitter parades and asynchronous tree climbing, while everyone else must bury themselves in books and homework right from the start.

Dr Johnson gave us a fun exercise to do in class - we were asked to quickly sketch memories of play from our own childhood, divided in four categories : Home, School, Neighborhood and Culture at large. The goal of the activity was to realize how much influence do these aspects of our lives, bear on the simple act of playing.

Here are some quick sketches I made.

 At home I enjoyed playing lego, carrom, hand puppets, dolls, and Logo programming language. I was very fortunate, that despite living in an orthodox neighborhood, my family was feminist and encouraged us to explore technology. There was nothing labeled "for boys" that we couldn't try. The only downside was that to avoid the "male gaze" in a neighborhood that did not feel safe for girls, I was indoors 99% of the time after school and had very little outdoor play.

Here's a collage of some games I loved as a kid. The first one, KNAPP electric questioner was a hit with me and my sister.

My sister was kind enough to share some pictures of my favorite toys from back home in India.

In school we had a sweet little outdoor play area with a sand box, jungle gym, see saw and such. The challenge was that we had really large class sizes (50-60 students in a class with two teachers), so sometimes the waiting time to get on a see saw was so long, that me and best friend would go in the class to steal some fevicol glue, put a layer on our palms, and peel them off a while later. By today's standards this was the lamest, most unfruitful, probably harmful for the skin, use of our time. 

But 25+ years later, she's still my best friend, and we don't regret our mutually wasted time utilization. Even the crowded ride in the school rickshaw had us playing games and singing songs along the way. Again, a safety hazard, and I probably would never approve of a similar transportation experience for my kid - but the memories of play were strong!

The best thing I remember about our neighborhood in general was the concept of connected roofs. My neighbor's daughter would sometimes pass on home cooked food over the shared terrace wall, and I longed for it as her mom was the most well known cook in the entire neighborhood. Hide and seek could entail an entire network of connected terraces. Again this is another playful experience that I would probably not be able to pass on to the next generation.

 The last aspect we explored was that if culture at large. India has many languages and religions, but the common grounds as a child is the experience of play. We never cared for our diverse background when we played together as kids. Unity in diversity! Another aspect I remember about the cultural experience was how we were exposed to the west through syndicated TV shows : mostly from US (Duck Takes, Tale Spin, Goof Troop), Japan (Oshin) and China ("Himgiri ka Veer" or Flying Fox of the Snowy Mountain). A lot of our imaginary play was influenced by these shows portraying cultures outside of our own - that still somehow resonated with us through the core idea of playfulness.

One interesting observation I made from this exercise is how all my colleagues were influenced by the games they played and it reflected in their career choices. I was into writing or drawing imaginary characters and it showed in my career interests in animation. I was also into Logo programming, and it now reflects in my interests in educational technologies. In Indian society, long hair were a standard for feminine beauty, and my way of acting out as a rebel against tradition was to cut my barbie's hair short, just imagining what it would be like to have short hair and still be equally feminine. To this day I cut my own hair short from time to time just to feel that norm-defying confidence.

In other cases it may not be such a straight forward connection between play experiences as kids and personality shifts as adults, but there is definitely some influence.

How has your play experience as a child affected your overall life as an adult? What did your play teach you?