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At Play in the Field of School

The founder of North Van's Windsor House, Helen Hughes, has spent a life challenging education's conventions.

By Matt Hern 16 Sep 2004 | TheTyee.ca
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The following is excerpted from Field Day: Getting
Society Out of School (New Star Books).

Helen Hughes was born and raised in B.C. She married at 19 and taught elementary school for five years. She then trained as a preschool teacher when her children were young and had her eyes opened by the curiosity and integrity of four- and five-year-olds, compared with the jaded and resistant 12-year-olds she taught in schools.

In 1971, when her daughter, then in Grade 2, began to lose her spirit, Hughes gathered a group of parents and started a 15-student school in their house on Windsor Road in North Vancouver. The school grew and changed, Hughes had another baby, and they ran out of funds. The school appealed to the North Vancouver School Board, which took the school over and hired Hughes to teach.

Windsor House slowly grew to about 65 students and moved to a new location every five years. When the school was 20 years old, Hughes became ill for two years and the school dwindled to 17 students. When she returned to work, Hughes began rebuilding the school as openly non-coercive.

The school moved to its present location in North Vancouver and began to grow in size. For the past 10 years, Windsor House has taken in older students (up to 18 years old) and has grown to 200 students. Helen retired at the end of the 2002-2003 school year and will continue learning at Windsor House. She has big plans to build a fort in the upper forest.

In your experience, how long has it been that people have been talking about "play" as an educational tool, as useful to a child's upbringing?

At least 40 years. I taught public school for five years and then I went and taught preschool and kindergarten, and took some training, and was stunned by what they were teaching to these young children because it was totally different from what my teacher training had been six years earlier. This was in the early '60s, and that's when I first got the idea that play could be so valuable. They were talking about it for very young kids, using all the academic jargon, correlating every play activity to some academic skill, while none of that was being discussed for school-age children, it was just "pour it in."

What role do you see play having in your larger educational praxis?

I think, and most people will surely not agree with me, that children should pretty well play most of the time until about the age of 12. I think that the value of play is far different than the kinds of academic correlations some people might want to make, using measuring spoons to learn fractions and all that kind of stuff. That's not what I see as the value of play. I think play is laying down the actual experiences that your body and mind can take in and not forget. The things you do in play you don't forget because they are not necessarily even conscious. You just have these experiences, so you notice what happens when liquid comes up a straw, when you shake off a blanket, when you pick up something that you thought was heavy but was light ... a zillion different experiences.

When astronauts need to learn how to manage without gravity, they play with moving their bodies, lifting things, pouring liquids and much more. As they play, their bodies learn how to cope.

And after 12 ... they should work?

That's a good distinction, because when I use the word "play" there I am actually thinking of playing with real things, instead of abstract ideas. Twelve is a very general number. Quite often girls are ready to move into abstract thinking at a younger age than that, while for many boys it's a lot older, but it is somewhere in there. It becomes clear, or at least it does at Windsor House, when a child is ready for abstract thinking because they start going to events and classes where they are just sitting and talking. Everything they talk about they have to have had some kind of experience, because talking about something abstract that you have no experience with, it doesn't actually mean anything to you. Once there is a base of experience, then it is possible to make abstract intellectual jumps.

Why do so many parents want to see their kids work so much? I talked to a parent yesterday who said he just wanted to see his daughter "put her nose to the grindstone." Why does the idea of kids playing a lot piss people off so much?

I think it pisses them off because a lot of people hate their jobs. It's hard to see other people not hating what they are doing.

I see a few levels of development. At first, children play with real things. Then, given the opportunity, they start to play with abstract things whenever they are ready. Ideally, they can earn their living doing things that mostly seem like play to them. I like to see people working hard at things they like to do and things that are meaningful to them.

So how would you begin to define play? Or work?

Just interacting with whatever you have in your environment and using your imagination and your own ideas with or without others is my idea of play. It also has to be a chosen activity. I don't see a big difference between work and play, because in my life what I'm paid for as work feels like play to me. I've never had a horrendous job. Everything I have ever done for employment I've enjoyed doing. Even the difficult times, the long, tedious meetings, have always fascinated me. It wasn't that they were wonderful, it's that I wanted to be there.

My life has been mostly play, but I work hard at it.

I'm not clear on this, but how about this for a distinction. Play is what you want to do in the moment, acting imaginatively, creatively, spontaneously. Work is what you think you ought to do, what you want to do looking at the larger picture. Play is a certain kind of self-centredness, while work is for a greater good.

I wonder if you could say that work is what you have to do (or choose to say you have to do), while play is what you choose to do. I think that work and play are mixed in together all the time. One morphs into the other, and I don't think there are hard lines between the two. I have never read a definition that satisfies me.
I think that's right. Maybe they are like Platonic ideals, and all activity has elements of both ... although now that I say that, it doesn't sound true ...

What I am in favour of is people being actively engaged in activities of their own choice.

Do you think it possible that a pedagogy that supports kids playing all day might run the danger of inculcating selfish personalities?

I just don't see that in the people around me. That's not what I observe. I observe kids who are left to choose what it is that they are doing maturing into fine, responsible people, over and over again.

Do you think that allowing kids to do what they want to do, to play all day long, creates a kind of social vacuum where dominant culture can rush in?

I am more inclined to tell kids what they can't do than what they can. I'd like it if families said "no" to television, and "no, you can't go to the mall all day. Think of something else to do." I don't want play to mean free rein.

To me, play means becoming engaged, usually with other people, but not always, and with your surroundings. As kids get older that can evolve into playing with ideas and abstractions. I think there are various kinds of play and I don't think that everything people are doing on their own is play. My definition of play includes creativity. Kids sitting around insulting each other isn't play, that's just being at loose ends. It's where boredom defaults to.

You've heard the line "play is child's work." A.S. Neill said that "every moment of a healthy child's life is a working moment." What do you make of that?

I think it means that you are doing important, real stuff when you are playing. That play matters the same way people think work matters. That's all.

Free schools are trying to describe a way to live in the world, trying to describe a "good life." State schools describe a way to live in the world that they expect children to mimic once they leave: accepting authority, rewards and punishments, taking orders, central guidance and all the rest.

Do you expect kids to move in the world the way they move at Windsor House?

Yes, I do. In fact, I have been moving Windsor House towards a model of being a resource rather like a library, only with activities and classes being offered, and with places for groups to gather. This resource would be for people of all ages.

I think it would be very preferable if people could find a way to earn their living doing things that give them satisfaction, and that their energy comes up for. Your life can become a blend of work and play of your own choosing, understanding that you are choosing to be in a particular milieu, not choosing every little activity.

I expect kids who come through a school like this to go on in their lives and do things that I would never dream of. I think that while they are here they experience the kinds of behaviours and actions that they will continue to use in the world at large, but they will exceed what they do here. Play and work are the raw materials they can use.

For example, there is a group of kids here who get huge satisfaction from building forts, which has elements of both work and play. They work at their play. They are clearly playing at fort building, and they are working hard.

This is another good example. When you are little and you are going to build a fort in the living room, and you run around the house and gather blankets and pillows and everything, and the whole time you are doing it, it doesn't take you any effort. You don't have to push yourself, it flows like magic and your energy is right up. Then it is time to put it all away and your energy drops like a stone, and it is a hard, onerous task to put it away. It is the exact reverse of what you just did so easily. It is just the way it is viewed. It becomes a completely different thing.

The more of your life you can lead that has that fort-building energy, the better.

Field Day: Getting Society Out of School was published last year by New Star Books.

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