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Parents Tracy and Christopher Stowbridge of Worcester send their son to the Touchstone Community School in Grafton. (CHRIS CHRISTO, Worcester Telegram)

(This article appeared in the Worcester Telegram on February 1, 2015)

Twenty-first century Americans’ relationship with play is, to use the social-media vernacular, complicated.

On the one hand, schools have cut play time in favor of test-driven academics. Kids play in regulated competitive sports leagues rather than roam outside with friends. Adults take less vacation time away from work.

At the same time, companies like Google and Apple have built-in play areas for employees on their campuses.

Clark University’s Higgins School of Humanities will explore our conflicting ideas and experiences surrounding play in its spring dialogue symposium series, “The Work of Play.”

The first event in the 10-Picturesession symposium, “Come Think About Play — A Community Conversation,” starts at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Higgins Lounge at Clark’s Dana Commons. All dialogue symposium programs are free and open to the public.

“If you think about what goes into having a good life, it’s not only how to work, it’s how to play,” said Amy Richter, associate professor of history and director of the Higgins School of Humanities.

“Musicians play. Artists play. We talk about the play of ideas,” she continued. “When things are going well in my classroom, it feels like play. It’s very fitting for a college or university to think about play.”

Symposium participants will talk about the role of play in promoting children’s intellectual, social and emotional development in the second session, at 7 p.m. Feb. 10. The talk will feature Peter Gray, research professor of psychology at Boston College, who will describe the defining characteristics of play and how they contribute to its educational and developmental power.

He also will present evidence for a cause-and-effect relationship between the dramatic decline of play and the marked rise in emotional and social disorders in young people over the past 60 years.

The question of how much school time should be devoted to play has come to the forefront as educators driven by government-mandated, high-stakes standardized academic tests cut recess and gym to a minimum.

A 2010 report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, “The State of Play,” found that one in five elementary school principals in a national survey indicated that annual yearly progress testing requirements have led to a decrease in recess minutes at their schools.

At Touchstone Community School in Grafton, an independent school for children in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, play is a part of the curriculum. Children in the early childhood and younger elementary grades have a half-hour recess twice a day, and they are joined by older elementary students and those in the middle school, which Touchstone calls its Older Student Program, at the after-lunch recess.

At a recent morning recess, several students rushed out to the playground for a pick-up soccer game. Some children climbed a wooded hill and gathered at a boulder to talk. A teacher helped a new student find a group to join. Young students piled dirt in buckets and made up games.

Three boys dashed between play areas, one shouting, “He’s trying to make kids jump so we can kidnap them!”

Will, 7, one of the three boys, said, “We like to play games where girls chase the boys.”

His friends Niko, 7, and Max, 6, agreed, although running around in general seemed to be a major component of their fun.

Emily Mlcak, Touchstone’s director of integrated arts, was one of the teachers keeping an eye on the energetic scene. Her 14-year-old daughter is a student at the school.

“The first day, I saw 14-year-olds playing soccer with 4-year-olds. I said, ‘Oh, that’s what it’s all about. Now I understand,’ ” she said.

Tyler Blum, 9, a student from Shrewsbury who is new to Touchstone this year, said having lots of games, activities and space to run was important to him.

“I feel like you get to get your energy out a lot so when you come in, you’re focused,” he said.

Tyler wasn’t at all intimidated playing with older or younger children, either.

“It’s mixed up with kids from the oldest classes to the youngest classes. I like that,” he said. “I was playing soccer one day and got bored. I saw kids in the OSP (middle school) playing Frisbee and asked if I could play and they said, ‘Sure.'”

Touchstone parents Christopher N. and Tracy L. Stowbridge of Worcester said their son Aaron, 9, pays attention and learns much better when he has plenty of chance to run around and play.

“If she (the teacher) is telling them to pay attention, she’s herding, not teaching,” Ms. Stowbridge said.

Mr. Stowbridge added that with the multi-age recesses, “Here he’s learned social skills and it teaches him to be patient with the little kids.”

Some of the Clark symposium sessions will address the darker side of play, including the role of gender construction in “Playing Like a Girl: Tales of a Feminist Gamer” at 7 p.m. Feb. 19, and “Dangerous Play: Racial Conflict in Twentieth-Century Urban Amusements” at 7 p.m. Feb. 24.

A Touchstone teacher at recess said the school tries to help children speak up for themselves while recognizing that play is a way for children to work out violence and other difficult issues they see all around them.

“In terms of violent play, we say they can play fight but they can’t actually touch each other. It’s part of figuring out their world. We also teach them to have their voice, if they don’t want to play,” said Nancy L. Baffa, lead pre-K/kindergarten teacher and parent of a 5-year-old student.

“I’ve worked in too many places where they say you can’t do it (pretend to shoot or fight) and they just go underground. It’s part of their growth.”

There’s some natural segregation of playing by gender on the playground, Ms. Baffa said. But teachers try to encourage play that’s not defined along gender lines.

She said, “We’ve had a few cases where a kid said, ‘That’s a girl thing,’ or ‘That’s a boy thing.’ We try to say ‘Anybody can do it.’ ”

Ms. Richter said that the symposium delves into many of these concerns: “We want to look at play as a lens for broader issues without erasing the experience of play in its own right.”

And as much as the symposium will explore the role and nature of play, Ms. Richter said a more recent problem is the variety of ways people have gotten away from play at all ages.

Mobile technology and economic pressures have tied adults to the workplace even when they’re on vacation.

Companies that have pingpong tables and game rooms for staff, largely in the high-tech sector, do so ultimately to produce successful products, retain employees and boost their bottom line.

Under adult influence, children are turning away from free play, pick-up games and make-believe to competitive sports and performing arts that are geared to increase the child’s chances of getting into a selective college or getting a head start on a career.

“Play without a product is getting harder to come by,” Ms. Richter said. “We’ve changed play. Is it the same?”

Ms. Richter said she hoped the topic of play would resonate with participants.

“The danger of focusing on play is that it could seem frivolous,” she said. But she emphasized: “We talk about the line between work and play. Have we drawn it too distinctly?”

Information about the Higgins School of Humanities spring dialogue symposium can be found at www.clarku.edu/higgins-school-of-humanities/Calendar/index.cfm.

Contact Susan Spencer at susan.spencer@telegram.com. Follow her on Twitter @SusanSpencerTG