I’ve been neglecting this blog lately as there has been a lot going on at our farm. But I wanted to share what I learned attending the Gordon Neufeld conference in Vancouver on May 1st. Neufeld is a developmental and clinical psychologist and the theme of this year’s conference was “Rest, Play, Grow”. For the opening and closing talks Neufeld spoke about the importance of play for the healthy development of children, both neurologically and emotionally. Drawing on information gleaned from decades of published studies, Neufeld stressed the critical importance of play. He defined play as having three properties: Play is not work (which he defined as outcome-based), is free of consequences, and is expressive and exploratory. We had fun as an audience going through a number of activities and determining which were Play. For example, reading a book is not Play because it is passive, recess at school is not Play because it is hard work and is not free of consequences in the social environment of the school playground. This definition of Play is used by developmentalists who study Play and its critical role in child development.
Neufeld spoke about Play and what it means to a child: it is how they express themselves and show who they are. They are not like adults who can be introspective and talk about themselves in a reflective manner; Play is children’s language of self-expression. I especially loved it when he explained that Play is where creativity is MOST likely to happen. That is true for academic scientists as much as it is for children! But interestingly for me he also said that this creativity can relate to academic subjects: creativity with numbers, with words. I have seen this in action! I have seen my children PLAYING with letters and words and numbers and that is how they learned to read and do math. I was hit with a lightbulb moment then: drilling students in math or reading, whether you are in school or doing curricula at home, turns it by definition into Work. But by leaving children free to choose to play with numbers or letters it becomes Play and that is where optimal learning takes place.
He then went on to describe the role of Play in development. It was fascinating and I don’t have nearly enough time or space to give it justice. Suffice it to say that Play programs the brain by developing neurological systems for problem-solving. Play can prepare for instructional-based learning, but the latter does NOT build those problem solving networks (fascinating validation to an unschooler!). As an example, he pointed out that the reported advantages of early childhood education disappear in healthy, functioning homes. And while he applauds the development of play-based learning in preschools and some kindergartens he noted that separation and peer interaction can cause stress that undermines the conditions that give rise to Play in these environments. Therefore, he states, preparation for instruction-based learning is best provided in the home; early education programs (play-based) would best serve those parents who are unable to provide the conditions for true play.
He went on to demonstrate how to create and foster the conditions necessary for Play. It boils down to Enough Freedom: enough freedom from pain and hunger and tiredness, from scheduled activities, instruction and schooling, the technology of attachment (Facebook and the like), from being entertained (DVD’s, etc) and from having to Work. The latter category included, most importantly, freedom from Attachment work, which basically means a child who is having to pursue a relationship with their parent, or take responsibility for that relationship (those familiar with Attachment Parenting theory will understand what this means).
I really enjoyed this conference, and especially Neufeld’s morning and end-of-day talks. The science geek in me loved hearing about how Play affects neurological and psychological development. The parent in me felt so validated! It cemented my belief that we were doing the right thing by our kids by providing them with this wonderful life, full of freedom and time to Play! There are so many occasions when I feel like I don’t held up to my own standards for myself as a parent, but this was something I could feel really proud of. What’s more, I felt like it was a real validation of Natural Learning (Neufeld is very supportive of homeschooling, though he recognizes not everybody can do it and he works with teachers and schools a great deal). He didn’t focus on this aspect as much but Natural Learning, or Free Learning, is truly Play by the definitions he gave us. And it is abundantly productive as I have seen in my own children and other unschooled kids. The fact that Play prepares the brain for work is an answer to all those who wonder how unschooled children “will ever learn to work”. Indeed, they are primed for it!
In between Neufeld’s talks we attended two workshops, each participant choosing from a list of topics. I found my sessions really informative and they provided me with a much-needed boost of inspiration to continue using parenting techniques that foster a solid attachment relationship with my kids. I’ve been a Neufeld fan for many years now, but it’s so easy to fall back into old bad habits that I find I need to refresh myself regularly. Attending this conference was just what I needed. It was a wonderful way to spend a day away from home!