the play instinct

I have a pond in my backyard.  By a pond, I mean, slightly larger than a puddle, about the size of a kiddie pool, sort of pond.  Apparently, the previous owners of the house had constructed this mosquito breeding ground themselves.  The first summer we moved in, I “stocked” the pond with a few goldfish in order to keep the mosquito population at a minimum.  Unfortunately, over the winter, the pond froze almost solid, since it isn’t very deep, only about a foot or so. Several dead fish were waiting for me in the spring.  Not pretty. So at the end of the next summer, I came up with an ingenious plan. I decided to rescue the new batch of goldfish before it got too cold and make my kindergarten classroom their winter home.  Perfect! I gathered supplies and prepared for a fish transfer.  

Have you ever tried to catch fish in a pond, with a net?  It quickly became clear that this would be a challenging task.  These fish were fast! An hour later, standing in the middle of the pond, in my knee-high waterproof boots, with my three children creating various distractions from the edges I still hadn’t caught a single fish.  I called it a day, tossing my net on the ground and offering to pay anyone who caught a fish $20. (Never mind that I had only paid 29 cents per fish three months earlier. It’s funny, the shifting value of things. . .)  But even my determined children had no luck that day.  

I had accepted the fate of my energetic, yet doomed goldfish and headed to a pet store to purchase new fish for my classroom aquarium.  While there, I told my story to the salesperson who snickered at my ignorance and naivety. That was when she informed me- when it gets colder, the fish will slow way down.  She assured me that I would be able to scoop them up effortlessly when the temperature dropped a bit more. Some pond owners even transfer them using their hands rather than a net.  And she was right. After a few cold days in October, the fish were easily caught- on the very first try.  

The lesson?  Nature should not be ignored.  Whenever possible, work with, not against nature to get the job done!  Children are like fish.  Ok, not really- children are almost always energetic and don’t slow down when it gets cold. 

But seriously, children have a natural instinct to play.   It is their default mode of being. Play is how children learn about themselves and the world around them.  We can choose to work with this natural play instinct or we can ignore, or even attempt to suppress it. Clearly, it is the wiser course to acknowledge and work with, not against, nature. 

Acknowledging and working with, not against, our young children’s natural play instincts is undoubtedly the wiser course, which would result in more effective and joyful learning communities.  

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but play is certainly the father.  -Roger von Oech


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