My journey into education began more than thirty years ago behind a puppet theater. As I made the puppets move and talk, I could watch the kids through the burlap talking to the puppets as if they were real. On the ends of the rows, detached from the enthusiasm, sat their teachers. A window opened on two worlds—children and teachers—separated by their capacity for believing and illusion. That was also the show, I thought. I never stopped looking or believing in what I saw.
When teachers who had made puppets in my workshops would return bursting with astonishment and excitement because their children listened better and did more work for the puppets than for them, I began collecting their journals.
Like a kid actually inspired by his science project, I re-cast puppetry into a paper play language. I believed that communication charmed with play was a powerful potion for systemic reform. Decades passed. Schools banned recess, grew zero-tolerant and rigid, embraced Ritalin, pumped academics like athletes on steroids. Art and music were out. Kindergarten worksheets came in.
I have paid a price for this adult voice which sings the praises of play in harmony with the voices of children. Children love my music and sing the words by heart. For creating something so in synch with children’s experience of the world that adults cannot see what it is, sometimes I feel trapped with children, marginalized and stunted by the system we cope with. In this belief, I feel I am at least in the right company.
Incredibly, my belief in play and paper puppets took me to Europe where I was invited to speak to an international meeting of brain scientists. Puppet play, I said, is an emotive pathway—art that transmits as ‘an agent of nature.’ “Play is a form of energy,” I said, a physical wavelength for reaching children and activating knowledge—energy easily harnessed by adults willing to reach, past disbelief, to throw the switch.
I believe that playful learning is a birthright, a freedom, a civil right; that learning so controlled and burdensome is a denial of a fundamental civil right. When the inventive minds of children are institutionally bound and stunted by those who are unimaginative we are all at risk. For it is one thing to learn about acid rain, for example; but entirely another to interview a raindrop, in puppet persona, sick from toxins to grasp the chemical nature of water pollution. This is really not a broad leap.
Thinking symbolically for himself at age 16, Einstein imagined what it would be like to ride on a beam of light. His ‘do-it-yourself field trip’ quality of mind helped him to frame field theory and relativity. “Keep asking questions that only children ask,” Einstein often counseled educators. Young children sometimes point to the puppet, and ask, “Are you real?” sensing innately what brain scientists are only just beginning to appreciate: that symbolic art combined with play and communication is alive with movement and energy. So when that old, enduring habit of institutional thinking looks like it’s gotten the best of us, I have learned that play, at least for the present, is always there, irrepressible and waiting to spring.
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