Believing Impossible Things: Keeping the Door Open to Joy

While strolling down the hall the other day near the PK and kindergarten classrooms, I overheard the following exchange between Keith Hudspeth, one of our music teachers, and a wiggly boy who was not much inclined to stay in line.

Keith: “I asked you not to be a jet right now.”

The boy: “But I am not a jet. I’m a car.”

Perhaps Keith was unable to hear the fine distinction in sound between the purr of a car engine and the quiet roar of a jet, but to his credit he was more than willing to allow the boy the freedom to imagine he was something other than a little boy expected to walk tidily in a line.

After 40 years in education, not counting the 20 years of schooling I spent before becoming a teacher, I have become more and more convinced that our job as parents and as teachers is to help children cultivate their best traits, ameliorate their worst, and then get out of their way as much as we can. All children are born curious, full of wonder, and desirous of loving and being loved. Too often life and school shuts down their natural curiosity and the open and trusting way they enter the world. Wordsworth in his Ode: Intimations of Immortality lamented how the “Shades of the prison-house begin to close/Upon the growing Boy,” carrying him farther and farther away from the celestial light of divine imagination that surrounded him in his youth.

At GDS, we push hard against closing the door to joy. I sometimes wonder what prospective parents think when they hear at our admissions open houses that our curriculum in PK and kindergarten is largely play based. What our teachers know and what research has revealed is that play is in fact the work of early childhood.

While GDS has never subscribed to any one educational theory (with Ishmael, we “try all things and achieve what we can”), we do believe with the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky that it is through play that children make sense of the world. In playing, whether it’s running a shop, teaching a cluster of unruly teddy bears, or responding to a make-believe fire, children create an imaginary situation, take on certain roles, and follow a set of rules determined by the nature of that role.

If one doubts the adage, “careful, the children are watching,” all one has to do is listen to them as they establish the rules of a game in imitation of what they have seen in the adult world. In conversing with themselves and with their classmates, in establishing and playing according to the rules of the game, they develop language skills, learn to make internal what was previously only external, begin to transition from purely concrete to more abstract thought, and learn to check their immediate impulses (to go first, to always be in charge, to keep the object for themselves), because the pleasure they can derive from being part of the structured game outweighs the fleeting pleasure of immediate gratification.

It is not all play, though, even as our older students continue to learn by doing. Even Thoreau came out of the woods. As Viggo Mortensen, who plays the father in the captivating movie Captain Fantastic realizes, some compromise is inevitable. For all of our belief in their natural gifts, we know that our students are still going to be taking the SAT or the ACT. When they leave us for college and life, we want them to know that opinions are not the same as facts, that facts are not the same as knowledge, that wisdom and understanding are hard won and possessed by few, and that manners still matter.

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