Helping Children Live Fully: The Place of Happiness and Play in School

November 14, 2015.dpenberg.0 Likes.0 Comments

I would like to introduce a truly radical and iconoclastic concept into the public conversation, which is this: viewing education as the continuous opportunity to help children (and adults) live fully. In other words, the connection between learning, happiness and well being.

Nell Noddings, one of the great educational philosophers of this time, expresses this idea brilliantly in her book called Happiness and Education where she draws that connection between the best schools and our sense of home:

The best homes and schools are happy places. The adults in these happy places recognize that one aim of education (and of life itself) is happiness. The also know that happiness serves as a means and end. Happy children, growing in their understanding of what happiness is, will seize their educational opportunities with delight, and they will contribute to the happiness of others. Clearly, if children are to be happy in schools, their teachers should also be happy. Too often we forget this obvious connection. Finally, basically happy people who retain an uneasy social conscience, will contribute to a happier world.

What a refreshingly different yet critically important way of looking at school and talking about learning-

There is also a rich literary tradition of philosophizing about happiness and well being in American literature. Starting with the cannon : Emmerson, Thoreau, Whitman all of whom were thoughtful ponderers of the natural sources of well being. For Emmerson, happiness was measured by living an ethical life balancing scholarship of the mind and the near religious respect for the natural world. For Thoreau, it was the scientific observation and interactions with the natural world that brought us closest to happiness. In Whitman, happiness is in the celebration of the every day, in singularity and uniqueness, of what connects the human to the natural world With the litany of talk and verbiage on 21st century skills —imagine expanding the public discourse by adding this fundamental concept: Happiness, teaching and supporting children in their pursuit of becoming whole, healthy, balanced, wise and full of wonder. Seeing education, teaching and learning, as the opportunity to help children live fully.

In 23 years as an educator I have been exposed to countless hours of playfulness, joy, and gravity defying sense of happiness while watching children at play. These scenarios contained all the child development and managment issues that constitute the core. From hand games to jump rope, sharing music on ipods to saying goodbye to your dad, what I learned and saw was how overwhelmingly full of hope, imagination and vitality, children can be. And yes, there are conflicts, bruises and negotiations for certain. But no despair. No injustice. Our jobs, as parents and teachers alike, is in the continual cultivating of these opportunities and attributes. They are the life force that creates and sustains culture.

One of the problems that gets in the way of such an aspiration is how we are all (teachers and parents alike) bombarded (and larded) with edujargon, or soundbytes. Call it the Rupert Murdach school of intelligence. Why else are the working vocabularies of our teachers restricted to a lexicon of achievement, problem solving, excellence… but never or rarely ever anything about happiness, or well-being. The absence of such language, is not by chance.

One of the jobs of all progressively minded educators and parents is to invite the learner into cultivating the sense of wonder and the capacity for the spontaneous. This is also the domain of play: where the imagination, self expression and meaning making take place. We are the gatekeepers to the social and emotional worlds of children. That’s our jobs: to tap into and stimulate children’s aesthetic and emotional worlds where the wellsprings of learning come from. All masterly teachers know how to design these spaces and how to get out of the way.

Lately I have been thinking about academic rigor. But the word, has always sounded crude. Rigor and rigormortis too close in association. What about learning that is vital and vigorous? Something more redolent of experience, discovery and intellectual depth? Once we start to change language, we begin to see things from other perspectives. I say this because we need to see schools where there is far less sitting, raising of hands and taking of tests and far more varieties of children exploring, working in teams, taking risks, establishing connections, improvising, and experimenting with ideas and materials.

— Imagine our children as adults facing the same circumstances we are as a nation and worse, 10 years from now. What kinds of resiliency will they have? How will they know how to collaborate and negotiate with one another? What kinds of happiness will they seek? How can we help them aspire beyond acquisition and the competitive as ideals?

We all want children to live vitally and to have the equal opportunity to pursue happiness. Watch the patio at our school some morning, between the jump rope, 4 square, futbal games and touch tag that kids invent and manage. We would be wise to not to call this childs play. Rather, it is culture making and living fully at its most genuine and vital.

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