I was raised on a dairy farm where my dad was employed as the hired hand. My family didn't have a lot of extra money, and I certainly didn't have but one or two store-bought toys. There was one thing, however, I had a lot of and that was opportunities for discovery, play and access to plenty of books through the community Bookmobile.
I remember every other Monday at 4 p.m. I would head for the Bookmobile, which had parked about a mile away at the community church. Generally I would ride my bicycle down that bumpy, gravel lane as fast as my legs could carry me. I was so excited to get my next volume of Nancy Drew, Little House on the Prairie, or any of the other special treats the librarian had tucked away for me.
I would return home to read and read and read. After the book was exhausted I would dramatize the story using anything from dolls to pencils, or just my imagination. I did not realize that I was doing all of the activities necessary to become a fluent, comprehender of text. Too much of the work we give our student is passive: fill out this worksheet, take this test, sit and listen. But deep learning is connected to the world around us. It is meaningful and active and complex, like acting out the story of Nancy Drew in the fields near a farmhouse in a rural town.
My parents gave me a dear gift. They naturally saw the importance of innovation, flexibility, and uninhibited play. They empowered me to use my own imagination and creativity through active play experiences. Once, I had a rich aunt come to visit us and she brought me a gift. I anxiously opened the box to find hundreds of used pencils of varying sizes and shapes. I was very disappointed. She is a "Rich Aunt" after all! When my aunt left, my mother said to me. "Aren't you lucky to get those pencils!" "You can turn them into anything you want!" I remember staring at the box and watching the pencils one-by-one becoming beautiful dolls. I literally played with those pencils as though they were dolls for years and years. My mother knew the power of innovation and creativity and she made sure I knew it too.
I have tried to use these lessons throughout my teaching career. Rather than leading my students I have always tried to empower them through flexible, play-based learning. To create and solve their own problems; to be creators of their own problems and solutions.
Thank goodness that my life’s path has been indirect and meandering. I am grateful for the opportunity to grow up on that dairy farm where I could be a rodeo queen one day, a detective solving crimes the next, and the overseer of a community of pencil people at all times. Thank goodness my mom couldn't afford the summer skills workbooks of today.
Today's children deserve to be educated in a environment of love, imagination, creativity, kindness, experimentation, discovery, and play. It is a gift that costs nothing but respect for the power of childhood.
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