I recently had the opportunity to join an Admission tour with a family who is considering Dana Hall School for their daughters. A highlight of the experience for me was a brief exchange between the prospective 5th grader and the poised, confident Upper School ambassador who accompanied us. As the two young women chatted about which languages they were learning, the older girl pointed out the window to the four-square court and the recreation area outside the Middle School building. “Do we get recess?” the applicant asked excitedly. “Yes, it’s really fun!” the ambassador replied. Their conversation then shifted to a discussion about the ways that our students enjoy themselves on campus, the connections that are formed across grades, and the general fun of being at Dana Hall. In that moment, I was reminded of the necessity of play for children and adolescents. Play, in its many forms, is as essential for cognitive development as it is for social growth, and our school incorporates playful experiences into learning in a consistent, deliberate manner.
The title of this post comes from Book 8 of Plato’s Republic, in which the ancient philosopher describes the types of individuals who would be fit to rule his idealized just city. He states that “there never will be a good man* who has not from his* childhood been used to play amid things of beauty and to make of them a joy and a study.” Here is Plato, in the year 380 BCE, arguing that a happy, learning-focused childhood prepares young people for leadership in a democratic society. 1400 years later, the pioneering educator John Dewey published one of his most influential books, Democracy and Education, in which he devoted an entire chapter to the topic of “Play and the Curriculum.” Dewey states, “study of mental life has made evident the fundamental worth of native tendencies to explore, to manipulate tools and materials, to construct, to give expression to joyous emotion, etc.” Clearly he saw essential connections between joy and learning.
What is it about play that is so important for cognitive development?
Our brains build important neural connections through play. This process does not stop once we reach adulthood. Contemporary psychologist Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi, in his groundbreaking work Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, says, “after an enjoyable event we know that we have changed, that our self has grown: in some respect, we have become more complex as a result of it.” One of the pioneers in this aspect of development was Donald Winnicott, who investigated the ways children come to understand reality, fantasy, and identity. Winnicott’s research led him to the conclusion that our personalities and emotional intelligence are formed in large part through play. “Children play to master anxiety, or to master ideas and impulses that lead to anxiety if they are not in control…play provides an organization for the initiation of emotional relationships, and so enables social contacts to develop,” he noted in The Child, the Family, and the Outside World. Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky believed that play enabled a child to act “beyond his* average age, above his* daily behavior; in play it as though he* were a head taller than himself.*” In schools, Vygotsky suggests that play allows learners to move into a deeper understanding of meaning, “between situations in thought and real situations.” Dana Hall teachers rely on this concept when they create opportunities for students to enact simulations or to assume the roles of historic characters.
How does play lead to civic competence?
In 1896, John Dewey delivered a lecture entitled “The School and Social Progress” to the community at the University of Chicago Laboratory School, which he had founded as a model of progressive education. In Dewey’s school, play took two forms. The first was purely recreational and necessary for renewal of energy; the other was in response to the natural tendencies and impulses of children, which he believed could be guided toward communal goals: “to reproduce on the child’s plane the typical doings and occupations of the larger, maturer society into which he* is finally to go forth; and that it is through production and creative use that valuable knowledge is secured and clinched.” Philosopher Hannah Arendt referred to the same innate affinity to play. In her powerful 1954 essay “The Crisis in Education,” she argued that young people’s natural tendencies to learn through play, and to prepare for the world of adulthood through play, should be at the heart of schooling. Arendt was fierce in her belief in the almost sacred nature of childhood. It is, she said, “the essence of the educational activity…always to cherish and protect something of the child against the world, the world against the child.” She referred to schools as “among the most elementary and necessary activities of human society.” Educators, Arendt said, “stand in relation to the young as representatives for a world in which they must assume responsibility…” These words came to mind as the Admission tour continued the other day. The eager 10-year old listened intently as our Upper School guide described the peer educators’ role in Forum. She explained the games and activities that older students lead with their younger schoolmates, emphasizing the importance and the fun of sharing ideas about complicated social topics with people of different ages.
We are intentional about joy at Dana Hall. We understand its value in individual growth, building community, learning through beautiful experiences, and preparing our students for participation in the wider world.
*masculine pronouns are original to the source texts.