Pat Montgomery’s “Herstory”: Play, The Work of the Child

Written by Pat Montgomery, founder of Clonlara School.  We’ve taken this opportunity to reprint an early Learning Edge column from Volume 3, No. 1, February, 1986.

It is so hard for some—yea most—adults to appreciate the place of play in the development of a child. I had a difficult time with this when I first started Clonlara School nineteen years ago. Oh, it’s true that all of the master teachers attested to the value of play. Montessori, Piaget, Neill and others whose works I had read encourage us to recognize the importance of play. But the temptation to interfere in the child’s play is tremendous. It was for me as though I, the teacher, had to make sure that the child really was learning through these seemingly random activities of hers. It took months for me to restrain my teacher bent toward interrupting or interpreting for the child.

I had lots of help in doing this. A.S. Neill wrote of the teachers he observed who could not let a child enjoy his activities in a sandbox because of the teacher’s need to explain the quality of the sand or the many uses of sand or the best way to construct a castle, and the like.

Parents as teachers will surely experience this urge to “teach.” Many will even feel guilty that they are allowing their home schooler to fritter her time away in play. The fact is that motion is the natural business of the young child. Sitting at a desk or table “working” on math problems or reading is as unnatural to the child as lying in a hospital bed.

Joseph Pearce, author of Magical Child, said this in an interview in “Mothering,” #35, Spring, 1985:

Play is the exercise with the metaphoric, symbolic language structure in the midbrain. The child abstracts images from the adult world that are unavailable to him or her through the high level intellectual brain; then the child projects these metaphoric, symbolic images of the midbrain on handy targets out here in the world. PLAYING IS THE FIRST LEVEL OF GREAT IMAGINITIVE THINKING (emphasis added). This is a learned process. The child can never learn to play without the parent playing with the child. Play…goes dormant unless it is stimulated by the…parent.

As children grow older—to seven or eight years old or so—we fall into the trap of organizing their spare time for them: Little Leagues or dance classes and such. This seems a logical extension of the fear that they cannot be trusted to fill their hours with meaningful pursuits.

Susan Macaulay, author ofFor the Children’s Sake, quotes from educator Charlotte Mason:

There is a danger in these days of much educational effort that children’s play should be crowded out or should be prescribed for and arranged until there is no more freedom of choice about play than about work. We do not say a word against the educational value of games (such as football, basketball, etc.) . . . but organized games are not play…. Boys and girls must have time to invent episodes, carry on adventures, live heroic lives, lay sieges and carry forts, even if the fortress be an old armchair; and in these affairs the elders must neither meddle nor make.

A Detroit Free Press columnist recently wrote that planned activity clutters our creative time. A child named Darlene had been diagnosed as hyperactive. Her teacher complained; her doctor prescribed Ritalin. A psychologist said she was mildly retarded and had learning disabilities. Finally, a psychiatrist gave his appraisal:

She attended a private school with lots of extra-curricular and enrichment opportunities. Besides that, she had ballet, swimming, art, and piano lessons, with practice time for all. An obligatory trip to the library every Saturday was factored into this child’s “free time”…. This child’s life…had been filled with programmed activities. She was about to explode emotionally.

Play is the work of the child. Maria Montessori said that. Let us provide for our young children an atmosphere in the home school which is conducive to play. While that is happening, you, the teacher, can read what masters have said. I recommend Susan Macaulay’s book, John Holt’s How Children Learn and How Children Fail, and Pearce’s interview in “Mothering” as a start.

Pat Montgomery founded Clonlara in 1967, and was its Executive Director for 38 years. We are pleased and honored that she continues to share her knowledge and wisdom with the Clonlara community in the form of “Herstory,” her regular column for The Learning Edge.


One response to “Pat Montgomery’s “Herstory”: Play, The Work of the Child

  1. Thank you Pat for putting things succinctly & yet with the necessary footnotes for us “academics”! Thanks also to you and others who have now provided us with decades of evidence that freedom (not license of course) works both during the school years and for a lifetime afterwards!

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