Even tidy teachers should make room for messy play sometimes

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'I don't like messay play!'

My colleague, Mary, was lamenting during the planning stages of a very "messy" three-day simulation experience for our middle school. The project would be anything but "business as usual." It involved cross-grade groupings of kids and adults, spontaneous response to situations, no apparent schedule, 1,500 square feet of recycled cardboard, and 17 gallons of Elmer's glue.

Our school would be building a box girder bridge from cardboard. Students would simulate the banks and the manufacturing, trucking, and design companies required by such a public-works project. It would be creative, intense, "multiply intelligent" - but very messy.

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"I've always liked nice, tidy plans," said Mary, surveying what I viewed as wonderful mayhem in the lunch room. "I wasn't even fond of my own kids playing in the sandbox." It was an honest, generous admission that I imagine to be typical of a lot of teachers. A very creative, experienced teacher, Mary was being a good sport, going along with the project despite her discomfort. She assumed a tidy role: supervising a bank. Given the circumstances, she did a wonderful job.

In contrast to Mary, I like improvisation. I like unconventional learning activities. I like messy play. And one would think that most middle-school kids have a similar penchant for chaos, given their reputation for discombobulation.

However, we found that kids are quite conservative and set in their patterns of behavior. And that's one reason to throw caution to the wind and change the rules of school every so often. Learning needs to give children encounters with unfamiliar tasks.

In our bridge-building simulation, the kids who functioned extremely well in a predictable, linear schedule of classes were clearly "outside of their comfort zone." And many students whose energy was less engaged during "normal" school - for whom normal school was outside of their comfort zone - came to the fore. Their intellectual and social leadership potential came shining through. They knew how to get a job done when it had three dimensions and a sense of reality, even if the requirements were uncertain.

I learned from this experience that we're timid when it comes to learning differences in adults and students, and we're hesitant to offer models of risk and improvisation.

From the predictions we hear of future work environments, risk, improvisation, and mosaic learning styles may be fundamental to people's adaptation to new tasks and technologies. The careers for which we're training today's students have yet to be invented. So school, I suggest, should make it a point to create uncertain situations and model creative adaptation.

Too much of school is centered on downloading information, not enough on putting information to work in varied experiences. The future is not going to be like a standardized test or like raising your hand with the answer in class. School should not be preparation for school.

One of the beloved mentors in my school career gave his faculty a stirring charge. Jonathan said, one September, "Let's dare to create some really interesting failures." Which is to say, let's not be so worried about getting it right, whatever that means. Let's dare to make responsible, educated, structured attempts at fresh experience - and then stand back and look at learning like a work in progress - for the faculty as well as the students.

Long live messy play - and the spirit of Mary's willingness to play along.

Todd R. Nelson, a teacher at the Maine Maritime Academy, lives in Castine, Maine.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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