Play is the highest expression of human development in childhood, for it alone is the free expression of what is in a child’s soul.
True education can never be forced – a child has to want to learn. This longing is often locked deep inside, and it is the teacher’s task to discover and encourage it. But teaching has probably never been as difficult as it is now. Many children spend more hours each day with their caregivers than with their parents. Too frequently, they come from broken homes into understaffed and underfunded classrooms. These children often enter the room rebellious and guarded, blocking teachers out for fear of being betrayed by yet another figure of authority.
But the role of the teacher is now more important than ever, and the most vital part of the work is not academic. We need to allow children to be children for as long as possible. They need time to breathe in and breathe out. They need to play. Children are not computers or robots that can be programmed according to our wishes; they have a heart and soul, not only a brain.
Friedrich Froebel, who created the concept of the kindergarten, was a nineteenth-century German educator whose greatest gift was his ability to view life through a child’s eyes. That is why, almost two hundred years later, his educational philosophy makes sense to anyone who loves children. When he coined the name “kindergarten,” he meant it literally – “a garden of children” – where each child is nurtured with the same love and care given to a seedling. He knew that humans are essentially creative and compassionate beings, and that education must involve the development of these traits.
Froebel often spoke of the importance of children’s play: “A child who plays thoroughly and perseveringly, until physical fatigue forbids, will be a determined adult, capable of self-sacrifice both for his own welfare and that of others.”
I have heard this quote all my life, as my mother Annemarie was Froebel’s great-great-grandniece. My parents often spoke about his insights into childhood. As a matter of fact, Froebel’s school in the little German village of Keilhau was run by my mother’s family for many years, until the Nazis commandeered it.
My mother kept the vision of Keilhau alive through the war years, as her family migrated from Germany to England, then to Paraguay, and eventually to the United States. Because of her commitment to her educational heritage, my own children and grandchildren and many others have benefited from Froebel’s approach. And we have seen that it works.
In Froebel’s Educational Laws for All Teachers, educator James Hughes distills much of the wisdom of Keilhau into thoughts that are easily understood today:
Froebel objected to every system that magnified knowledge at the expense of the child, and his whole life was a protest against the “stamping and molding” processes of teachers who failed to recognize the sacredness of the child's individuality. What he valued was not power, but creative power. He aimed to make something better of his pupils than mere “machines,” and, as he so well said, to make them “free, thinking, independent people.”
Today, advocates of play and exploration can be found everywhere. In fact, all good teachers know that play for its own sake is irreplaceable in a child’s life. Not only is it the best method of early education, but it’s also essential for the growth of a child’s spirit. In a way, play ought to require no further defense; it defines childhood.
In Finland and several other European countries, children only start academic instruction at age seven. These students have the lowest number of classroom hours in the developed world, yet they consistently score at the top of world education rankings by the end of their public school years. In these countries, it is simply understood that until age seven, children learn best when they’re playing; by the time they finally get to school, they are eager to learn in a more formal setting. There is also greater public respect for teachers than in the United States, and correspondingly higher pay.
There is profound truth in Plato’s thought: “What is honored in a country is cultivated there.” What is really honored in our country? Is it the forming of children’s hearts and minds? Or is it career readiness?
In The Education of Man, Froebel writes:
Protect the new generation; do not let them grow up into emptiness and nothingness, to the avoidance of good hard work, to introspection and analysis without deeds, or to mechanical actions without thought and consideration. Guide them away from the harmful chase after outer things and the damaging passion for distraction. . . . I would educate human beings who with their feet stand rooted in God’s earth, whose heads reach even into heaven and there behold truth, in whose hearts are united both earth and heaven.
Every child is different. Each has a unique set of abilities, created for a special purpose. So why force a common educational standard on them? We know children learn best through playing, but play also brings joy, contentment, and detachment from the troubles of the day. In our frantically over-scheduled culture, every child should have a right to play.