Creative, Playing Children Are Learning to Become More Productive and Thriving Adults

President of HEI

Dr. Mary Landon Darden is President of HEI, LLC. She served in education administration for 20 years and last served as a university center dean in San Antonio, TX. Darden is the author of a book co-published with the American Council on Education and Rowman and Littlefield titled Beyond 2020: Envisioning the Future of Universities in America.

One of the most talented and caring child-care leaders I know is Mimi Zylinski. She runs a creative, fun, ambitious learning program to mostly preschoolers in Vermont. I remember her defending “play” for children by saying, “Play is children’s work.” Although a seemingly simple statement, I remember that it struck me at the time as an “Aha!” moment. I thought, of course, in order to learn to work well as an adult, we have to learn to play well as children.

I know that Mimi meant this statement to mean more than simply “getting along” or “playing well with others.” She very intentionally infuses the day with various creative endeavors, like finger-painting, cooking and baking, planting and harvesting food from a garden, daily craft time; and, of course, running, playing, climbing in the beautiful green space that surrounds the daycare.

When I held my first administrative position at a community college in Texas, one of the areas I became responsible for was Kids’ College — a summer program predominantly for elementary school age children. When I worked to enhance and develop the program, I observed and asked questions about what children needed and wanted. I watched what engaged children in our own programs. I noticed that playtimes at the public schools had been minimized and more time was spent doing worksheets to prepare for testing. There was only one art teacher assigned to a whole district of elementary students, yet the students in our program seemed to crave art-time. It is clear that the arts in public schools are being minimized in order to maximize test preparation.

Therefore, I set up a few parameters for Kids College, including that there would be no testing or work sheets. We would ask our teachers to infuse art, creativity, exploration and imagination into every possible area of our programs. Together, we developed courses like Storytelling, where children read books, created a story from books or their own imagination, wrote a play from that story, and used real costumes and props to act out those plays. From this, they became better readers, better writers and better presenters – and isn’t that what most of us need to do as adults?

We hired teachers who had hands-on experience in the creative and knowledge areas and were passionate about what they did. We had a Junior EMT course where students were able to ride in an ambulance to the emergency room, observe medical professionals acting our what might happen in ER, board a medivac helicopter that landed on our campus and talk to the people that rescue people by flight. We had raku pottery, fused glass jewelry, painting, theatre, and various music-related classes, including guitar and musical theatre. We had Outdoor Adventures, where the children were able to canoe, explore and work with the flora and fauna our enormous park area. They built and launched rockets, and met scientists from NASA in Aerospace.

The children thrived. They were excited, enthusiastically engaged and we had almost no injuries or incidents, despite the 1800 class enrolments we had the last summer I served in that capacity. When children are doing things they love (and of course, learning at the same time), they do not act out in ways they might when they are bored or being forced into tedious repetition.

I love it when I hear stories from Silicon Valley where play and activities are often infused even into adult problem-solving and teamwork. The success there appears to be evident.

I am an unwavering, whole-hearted believer in creative play. We must find ways to front-load creativity, art, exploration and imagination into as many areas of study and activity as possible. We need to explore minimizing our testing requirements, which seem to place enormous pressure on students, teachers, and administrators. When people love what they are doing, they tend to do it more. Tapping into the sparks of creative gifts and talents and fanning those flames should be clear pathways to a more productive and fulfilling adult life.

We need to also find ways for students to be physically active in as many of those activities as possible. Igniting the spark and excitement of learning by creative endeavors and problem-solving is the best way insure that we will one day have a population of adults that will enthusiastically do the same.

Like Mimi knows, we learn to work well as adults by playing well as children.

Question: What are some ways you incorporate play into your daily classroom experience? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

President of HEI

Dr. Mary Landon Darden is President of HEI, LLC. She served in education administration for 20 years and last served as a university center dean in San Antonio, TX. Darden is the author of a book co-published with the American Council on Education and Rowman and Littlefield titled Beyond 2020: Envisioning the Future of Universities in America.

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