Every once in awhile, I hear people referring to THS as being “play-based.” I think this impression or description comes from the fact that our kids seem to be smiling and enjoying themselves a lot of the time. But there are a number of reasons that the description does not fit our school or our philosophy or even, really, a child’s psychological reality.
First of all, we might argue that "play" does not exist at all. Unless a child is sleeping (and maybe even then), every single action that child takes - from observing an adult eat to throwing a temper tantrum to figuring out which clothes fit on a doll to running across a field or building a fort in the living room or a forest - with every single conscious or unconscious thought or movement or observation, that child is working.
Children's job is to understand the world and how it works, to learn to manipulate it and to deal comfortably with themselves and others, and everything they do contributes to that job and is part of that work. To specify some of those activities as "play" is to imply somehow that they are not completing their work when they do those activities, when in fact that is precisely the work they are supposed to be completing.
What we really mean when we label some things as “play” is that kids are enjoying their work. That has all kinds of philosophical implications that extend throughout childhood and adulthood. By that definition, since I love much of what I do, I am playing a great deal of the time, and so are many of our teachers. By that definition, we hope that kids and teachers “play” their way through every day at THS. If we make a distinction between “play” and “work,” where do we place a performing artist who is immersed in a production, or a writer who is transported by a story, or a mathematician who excitedly fills a whiteboard?
Second, "play" implies that our program is not academic. Again, like Maria Montessori, I would argue that the academic world is just as much part of a child's world as any other part of their world. Adults make those distinctions, but kids just want to learn. They don't care if it is "academic" or not. There is nothing more difficult about learning the types of volcanic eruptions or naming the continents or kings than learning the names of the Care Bears or the Kardashians. There is no reason that kids can't have fun while experimenting with math, learning to read or write books and stories, discussing the reasons for Plato’s trial, or any number of other things that adults would classify as “academic”.
Creating a science experiment or collecting plankton or figuring out what makes the Black Dolphin go are all academic endeavors and very much a part of our program. Creating an agora to “study” Greek culture is just as much an academic endeavor as reading a book about the agora or taking a test. My own belief is that our program ends up being more academic -- in that kids learn more things typically assigned to that category -- rather than less. Kids in The Foundry learn many "academic" skills like electronics while "playing" with making a toy with blinking lights, and kids on the Black Dolphin learn academic skills like marine chemistry while "playing" with microscopes. And, as Elizabeth Micci recently pointed out, the real advantage of experiential learning is that these topics being learned are memorable for the long term rather than just memorized for the short term.
And finally, "play-based programs" in other places are often an excuse for chaos. In many schools, kids are just dumped together in a relatively uncontrolled environment without regard to the points I made above, so there is not a "total immersion" effect and no overall nod to the content and skill development (including social skills) expected from the experience.
Experiential learning is not just experience -- it's learning. Teachers have to think about what is being learned and how to foster those things. The Renaissance Faire is not just a party – it’s a deep understanding of a historical era. A beach exploration is a chance to learn scientific classification. Students creating a computer game are learning coding, design thinking and project management. Our experiential learning model is anything but chaotic, as it is carefully and mindfully constructed at both a school and classroom level. Chaos does not promote learning, and we want to avoid the impression that we foster or encourage a chaotic environment.
So we’re not, in fact, play-based. We’re experiential. It’s all the giggling and laughing that gets people confused.