I learned how to be a great teacher on a playground. I played chase with the kids. I chased them around and then, when they understood the rules of the game, I turned the tables. I pointed to one of my quieter students and said “Oh no! Eric’s the monster!” And I ran from him. He chased because, well, if someone runs you chase. After that day Eric was a different kid. He played more with his peers and started to engage in pretend play, a hallmark of cognitive development. Up to that day, about 5 months of school, Eric had never played with the other kids. He would stand next to me on the playground refusing to interact with the other students. I took to introducing him as my associate. At the time Eric’s parents were going through a tough time and his mother and father had just split up and gotten back together twice over the course of 6 months. Unstructured play was critical for Eric, just like it is critical for all children, but especially for children living in poverty. There is lots of research that supports the notion that play activates the brain and creates higher academic achievement. This reinforces the idea that learning how to negotiate complex social interactions is critical to long term success. That day, when Eric decided to play was a special day but there have been many on the playground.

The playground was the first place I was able to sit back and watch students interact without my telling them what to do. I saw friendships, compassion, passion, and extended pretend play. I was able to get down on the ground and talk to my students under the sliding board without 10 other kids asking questions. I have also seen my share of arguments, fights, and misunderstandings. Each time this happened I wasn’t necessarily right there to do something about it but, my students knew I would help them resolve it if they needed me. I have watched children play out the real life drama of their lives and learned what it felt like for my students to live where they lived. One time, while substituting in Whitcomb Court, the students had invented a game where basically everyone on the playground pretended to die. No one had a gun, they just acted like they had been shot again and again. It made sense because the mid-to late- 1990s were some of the most violent years in Richmond’s recent history. When I began working at my current school, the custodian consistently found unseemly things on the playground. I even had a student find a rock (crack cocaine). Students reenact police interactions they see in their neighborhood but they also reenact the care of moms and dads for their children.

On the playground I learned to see children for who they are, not who I think they should be. I have seen kids learn they were leaders on the playground and give up trying to control everyone around them. I have seen children learn what it means to follow directions just by finally understanding that we don’t walk up the slide. I learned on the playground, and later from research, that boys express emotional connection through physical interaction. The rough take-down by a Power Ranger of a monster, often from two simultaneous, though separate pretend games, might lead to tears but when it was done there were hugs. The other thing I learned about boys is that preventing them from learning how to handle their extreme feelings of anger when they are young doesn’t help them. Helping them to work through those feelings with support does. Just because a boy or girl fights another doesn’t mean they are doomed to a life of crime. That is one of the hardest and most important lessons I think the playground has taught me. The world is full of fear, challenge, anger, frustration, friendships, arguments, risk, hurt elbows, skinned knees, and bruised feelings. Children have to learn how to manage emotions, take appropriate risks, overcome challenges, make friends, fall down and then pick themselves up and have fun again. We have to learn to be ready for all of that but those experiences aren’t on the test. Now that I think about it, I realize the playground is a lot more like real life than the classroom. What have you learned about life from the playground?

Image: Steven Depolo

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