In my yard, there are two worn foxholes. These are not holes that provide foxes with a route of ingress and egress from their dens; no, these are foxholes for the Allied soldiers. They are the result of many hours of my children tearing up a portion of our yard with every sharp implement in the garage. These holes have been the cause of not a few fights (two foxholes and three children is not a harmonious ratio). When it rains, the foxholes become mud pits for wrestling in and create a great deal of mess. Though their effect on the war effort remains to be seen, the foxholes stay because they are important. Firstly, my children are outside when they are digging and playing in their foxholes. Secondly, when they are tearing up the yard, they are not tearing up the house. But most importantly, we keep the foxholes because their work is their play.
I confess that in the past I did not take play very seriously. By nature, I am far more inclined to metaphysical musings than playing games. I thought of play as something kids did when there was nothing useful to do. However, over years of motherhood, I have observed how much play is part of their learning. Countless times I have overheard my children playing our lessons. On most of these occasions, I heard them enact a story or lesson during which I would have sworn no one was paying attention. What is have seen is that learning is embodied – it must be lived out in their play.
I have observed three categories or spheres of work-play. The first is the most obvious – imaginative play. My yard is not only a World War II battlefield but also Mordor and the wilds of Siberia and the Roman senate. There are crowns and capes and bows and arrows. A child is now Gandalf, now Patton. This is the play-realm of ideas and stories. It is a form of narration in the round – retelling the lesson in three dimensions. I pay attention to this play; as with other types of work-play, it is a humane assessment tool. When it becomes flat or dull, they are either spending too much time on screens or in need of new ideas and stories.
The second form of play is creative or artistic play: drawing, painting, dancing, cooking, playing instruments, and singing songs. My daughter, strangely, has a wall of drawings of Smaug. (She is five and rapidly increasing in eccentricities). Smaug breathes fire or smokes a pipe or wears a top hat. Often, Smaug, for reasons no one can comprehend, has a conversation bubble and is saying, “Oat.” My sons, advancing in musical aptitude, pick up their violins outside of practice time to play a folk song, hymn, or film score by ear. Artistic play is the realm of skills and practice. If they do not draw or dance or play instruments or sing, it is because they lack the skills (or the space) to do these things. When we learn songs or do drawing lessons, I immediately see these skills reflected in their artistic play. When I see, for example, that my boys have stopped drawing, we will do some drawing lessons to master new skills. If they have stopped artistic play, they often are ready for new skills.
The final type of work-play is linguistic play. This may be the least obvious, but it is the most natural to me. Linguistic play is a far more effective way of developing the language arts than a spelling test ever dreamt of being. Linguistic play feeds on memorization. But this can’t be just any memorization. Like imaginative play, it feeds on ideas and stories. There are frequent family jokes about songs or Shakespeare or poems, substituting words or making puns. Linguistic play also includes foreign language learning. Often I find my daughter skipping around, chanting phrases from her brothers’ Latin and Spanish lessons. Linguistic play improves their vocabulary and fluency with no worksheets required.
Learning is not an abstraction – it cannot be separated from the body. It must be lived out in creative, artistic, and linguistic play. In work-play, word becomes flesh, paving the pathway to wisdom. To me, this need for play is one of the most compelling reasons to homeschool younger children. Schools, even classical schools, tend to devalue and crowd out play. I deeply regret every single piece of homework that I assigned as a 4th-grade teacher. If I returned to the grammar school classroom, I would give them space to paint, sing, act, and laugh. Beyond that, I would begin every parent-teacher conference (after the initial compliment, that is) with this question: what does your child play? This would be a truer assessment than a report card to see where the successes and failures are.
One advantage to the dual roles of mother and teacher is the ease of assessing by attending to their play. Several months ago, we were traveling for a wedding. We spent one night at a family-friendly lodge, which is a money-making machine for tired parents of overstimulated children. Activities, game rooms, build-a-bear, terrible pizza, and even an indoor water park – all within the “comfort” of the lodge. I knew what I was getting into, but the prices were cheap. We would only be there a couple of hours before dinner; I would surprise the children with an indoor water park. They would play and eat and sleep, and we would be off first thing in the morning.
The lodge was built for children who do not know how to play. We bypassed all the noise and flashing lights on the way to the water park. It was loud with moist air and even less enjoyable for me than I thought possible. What surprised me was the response of one of my sons. He was not disappointed by skipping flashy game rooms or by any perceived lack in the water park. He was sad because our room had no balcony. We were studying Julius Ceasar, and they had memorized Mark Antony’s speech. He pictured the speech on a balcony, and his true heart’s desire was to stand on the balcony and be Mark Antony. It is easy to notice his terrible spelling or perpetual shoelessness. But if I pay attention, I see that when it comes to work-play, he is a master. And that counts for something.