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The Play's The Thing

"The play's the thing
In which to catch the conscience of the King."
 - Hamlet
In a few short words Shakespeare captures the power of drama over mere words. Rather than confrontation with the man who murdered his father, Hamlet uses the symbols of drama to illustrate his emotions and conflicts.
The implications for classrooms today, including those that are designed to prepare teachers, is enormous. Those who promulgate "cooperative learning" as a successful strategy to produce learning forget that such learning should really become a form of "play" -- that it is this attribute which transforms learning beyond dull routine. If teachers really understood cooperative learning at its best, they would see the clear resemblance of children's responses within the group to the interaction of theatrical ensembles. The actions they create take the players beyond the dull routine of factual acquisition to a truly higher order of thinking and of sharing thought. They have at their heart the planned lesson of providing children with the opportunity to work things out, each in his or her own style, emotionally and cognitively.
Moreover, play is the best way to guide children to connecting their thoughts. At its best it is the acting out of formal and informal interpersonal games wherein each move creates new relationships critical to thinking about relationships in every discipline and field. "Acting out," when allowed to flourish, enables children to probe deeper meanings as another way of acquiring the skill of searching for understandings well below the surface of just mechanical problem solving.
Nothing is worse than seeing children sitting together without teachers creating within them the excitement of such groups working at the transformation of facts into ideas and ideas into tangible outcomes.
Play can bring to life the drama of learning about different historical periods. Play can create imaginative responses to mathematics, as in the kindergarten activity of guessing what shape or form is in a sealed box by the way it reacts to being held and shaken. Play can bridge the gap between cultures, societies, and languages as children explore with one another the many ways they react to different stimuli. Play can transform learning language beyond chalkboard word-recognition or repetition, or to merely the dull recitation of duller stories.
Perhaps most important, play can change behavior and is the only way to receive and initiate the new child into the social group called a class. Games and imaginative ways to engage the child with the rest of the class can do more to help set the stage not just for acceptance, but for learning, than any other strategy.
Play is the best way to free the imagination of the child and to keep that imagination alive while he or she progresses through the grades. In the latest education craze to focus (almost to the exclusion of everything else) on science, technology, engineering and mathematics, we have already been admonished by the great practitioners of these fields that "we don't need more engineers, we need those who can think." And we are at the mercy of those who have already forgotten the pointed and poignant words included in the national committee report on 9/11, which referred to that event as "a failure of imagination."
Need we be reminded that play as one of the most important ingredients in the classroom needs to be reinforced by play in children's theater, in moving to music, in physical education, and in dance as it spells out a story. As just one example, introduction to the song is best accomplished as children come to understand, through the lyrics -- the story -- what the music itself is all about. At the height of musical performance, professional artists, too, learn this in the Master Classes of Maria Callas, illustrating the aria, and Barbara Cook, the great songs of musical theater. Their message to students has been to forget the mere production of sound and work toward telling the story -- the great drama of the text. Their charge is to lead the audience to imagine the story, each in his or her own way. It is the same as teachers must sustain the interest and the imagination of children. Authentic play in the regular classroom achieves its ultimate outcome as children are enabled to enliven their learning within experiences in the free, but developmentally appropriate, learning environment achieved by structured ways to use play.
The complexity of play in too many of today's schools has moved teachers further and further away from understanding its utility, and school leaders further still from being able to articulate how the overall education of our children is genuinely affected by enabling our children to profit from freeing their minds to absorb new ideas in a manner authentic to children. Play is viewed as a diversion from real learning. When our educational leaders wake up to the fact that children are children and need to behave as children while learning, we will no longer need to worry about this nation's educational achievement among the other nations of the world. 

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