Thursday, June 10, 2010

Working hard at play

I have been reading journal articles for a paper I am writing on play.

Yeah, the irony of working on play has not slipped past me.

I spent many years teaching parents about the value of play. It is an easy thing to see, when you spend hours observing children play, but it is a difficult thing to explain to parents when they are worried about how their 5 year old will do on standardized tests in three years. It seems to make sense to cut back play time and spend more time teaching the facts and figures that will be on the test.

It seems to make sense, but it doesn't.

I usually explained to parents how learning is a social thing and their children are developing social skills when they play. Still, I wondered if play helped children develop social skills, why did I spend so much of recess dealing with arguments over playground territory?

I had better success pointing out that children talk when they play, which means they develop language skills. Well developed language skills are the basis of any good learning; especially math and reading.

These are good reasons for defending play, but as it turns out there are more important, more fundamental, more urgent reasons why children play. Play develops something called executive function which allows children to self-regulate. Three of the skills involved in executive function include inhibitory control, cognitive flexibility and working memory.

And you thought they were just playing tag.

You see, stopping yourself from running after the ball when you are playing goalie in soccer, so you will be in the right place when the ball comes to you, is the same skill you need to ignore noise in the hallway when you are working on a test. The same skill that lets you predict what a friend will do, and change your actions to adapt, is the same skill you need to realize that you should be dividing those numbers from that story problem instead of adding them. And it seems that the same skill you use to remember your role in the game of "house", as well as the roles of all other participants, is the same skill you need to monitor your comprehension while reading.

In other words, if we don't let children play, they may not learn the brain skills necessary to learn what else school has to teach them. They need to play so they can learn. If they don't get to play, learning is harder and less efficient.

Wait. . .what? In order to be better learners, children should study less and play more? Who invented that system?

God did.

I just love how God created a way for the brains of children to develop that works naturally. We don't have to take extra time to help them to do better on a test. We just need to let them do what their brains were designed to do. For every hour they spend playing, the more they will get out of teaching and studying. Cool plan; someone ought to package that, get government funding and sponsor legislation that forces every school to follow this.

Hmmm, I'll get right on that; as soon as my work is done.

In the meantime, I feel blessed to see a new way that God works in my life. God gives children the desire to play and play prepares them for learning and eventually ministry. I know, too, that the work God puts before me, is preparing me for learning and ministry.

I have developed a pretty strong ability to delay gratification. I suspect this is a genetic thing – being able to put off play, reward or rest. While it can be a good think in terms of meeting goals, it is probably not a good thing in terms of living a healthy life. Still, the opposite, to turn to immediate gratification, does not seem right either. That is selfish and just as harmful.

I think what God is teaching me, here, is to be gratified with what He has planned for me to do. I do not have to wait to be happy until I get this next paper done; I can be happy in the act of writing the paper. I do not have to wait to relax until the last stats final is handed in; I can rest in the assurance that God is working with me and providing me with all I need to learn. No matter how I much I delay, there will be no reward this side of heaven. Working in the here and now is instant, long-term gratification. Working in the here and now is preparing me for what is ahead.

Woe to those who draw sin along with cords of deceit,
and wickedness as with cart ropes,

to those who say, "Let God hurry,
let him hasten his work
so we may see it.
Let it approach,
let the plan of the Holy One of Israel come,
so we may know it."

Woe to those who call evil good
and good evil,
who put darkness for light
and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
and sweet for bitter.

Isaiah 5:18-20