Fluorescent lights illuminate the space. The ambience is of concrete. The bell rings, a door is opened, and the occupants shuffle out to the next appointed space. The lunch room…food created by the lowest bidder – you know by the smell.
I have been in hundreds of classrooms, as a graduate student, a teacher, an educational consultant with a national reform organization, and, now, as an independent consultant in Taos. The professionals in these schools – teachers, administrators, support staff – are, for the vast majority, committed and dedicated to the children they serve. Many beautiful classrooms exist, and some teachers do take the hard road of writing their own curriculum. And I have left most of the classrooms I have visited with my heart broken for the squandered childhoods. We have inherited the prison-like, factory model, monolithic education system. And we teach how we were taught – students sitting in rows, in square, institutional rooms, listening, working through worksheets or textbooks. I stay in my chosen career path because I have hope. Hope in humanity. And, yes, even hope in public education, which I see as having the potential of being the great equalizer.
The path of a teacher and a teacher of teachers was never my intention. My passions are neuropsychology – the relationship of biology to the experience of having a mind, how humans learn and develop, and, essentially, research design and analysis. As a result of this meandering, I stumbled onto how the human imagination evolved and how it is ultimately the primary way we learn how to be humans who live in communities through our biological need to become fully participating members of a culture. We are driven to be a part of it all from birth, whether we witness the cultural doings as a Taos Pueblo tribal member or the work of accounting and business in dominant culture. Cultural experiences are the stuff of our imaginings.
All mammals play, including pretend play! When they chase each other it is not for real. Ravens play. Even reptiles play, when in captivity with no pressure from a harsh environment or the need to find food. In fact, they become depressed until given objects or others animals with which to play.
If play is so important to learning, why is it cut from educational programming after pre-K? Play is considered a behavior that has no purpose – you don’t learn to read or write or multiply through play do you? Even more basic, when a child is hunting with a stick gun or rocking a baby doll to sleep, they are not accomplishing anything – it’s not for real. But we know that play does serve a purpose – those children are practicing the behaviors, the identity, and the emotions they have witnessed by functioning adults in their community, roles they see in everyday life that they need to model in order to learn them and become fully functioning members of the tribe.
Author Diane Ackerman, the writer and natural historian, says it best in her book Deep Play,
“It’s so familiar to us, so deeply ingrained in the matrix of our childhood, that we take it for granted. But consider this: ants don’t play. They don’t need to. Programmed for certain behaviors, they automatically perform them from birth. Learning through repetition, honed skills, and ingenuity isn’t required in their heritage. The more an animal needs to learn in order to survive, the more it needs to play… What we call intelligence … may not be life’s pinnacle at all, but simply one mode of knowing, one we happen to master and cherish. Play is widespread among animals because it invites problem-solving, allowing a creature to test its limits and develop strategies. In a dangerous world, where dramas change daily, survival belongs to the agile not the idle. We may think of play as optional, a casual activity. But play is fundamental to evolution. Without play, humans and many other animals would perish.”
So what does play have to do with education and classrooms? What about reading and writing and arithmetic? Algebra II???
Lucky for us, our need to play never diminishes – it merely transforms. Do you read? Play video games? What TV and movies? Daydream? Attend theater or narrative readings? Write? Create or enjoy visual arts? Play sports?
And, as we get older, we begin to engage in a uniquely human form of play – deep play. Deep play is still considered purposeless, yet it does have the potential to evoke consequences. Examples of this play type are athletics, rockclimbing, gambling, therapy, and shamanism. A rocketry engineer solving the math problem to land a probe on Mars… Are you following? Learning to read and write and research, and even Algebra II can all take place in the context of deep play. Solving that authentic, contextualized math problem is purposeless, but it can have consequences – the experience yields flow, mastery, and control of knowledge. The learner experiences the same opiate hit from successfully solving the problem as when engaging in the pretend play of childhood.
And now for a shift in the story. When Clint first asked me to read at this event, he said that I should tell a story or stories – I know so many children in Taos. I thought long and hard, and lost sleep, considering his request. Eventually, I reflected on the fact we all know so well – Taos is a small town. Any story I tell might be recognizable to some person in this room. I am bound by professional ethics of confidentiality and child safety, so I will keep the story very general. And we all know what it is… In Taos County,
- The percentage of the population over the age of 25 without a high school diploma or equivalency is 13.4%.
- The 2015 unemployment rate was 9.3%, almost double that of the nation.
- Around 38% of the population earns less than $25,000 per year, and most of these people hold less than a college degree.
- 23% of the Native American population lives under the poverty level, compared to 18% of White residents.
- 9% of deaths are alcohol-related.
- 5% of deaths are related to drug overdose.
- 5% of children have been neglected, or suffered physical or sexual abuse.
- 4% of households are food insecure.
- Only 51.5% of children report that they have an adult at home who is interested in them.
- 50% of children below the age of 5 live in poverty.
- 33% of New Mexicans have been victims of domestic violence – and children witnessed 32% of these events.
ACEs – adverse childhood experiences – represented in these statistics. The main causes of ACEs are
- Emotional abuse
- Physical abuse
- Sexual abuse
- Emotional neglect
- Physical neglect
- Mother treated violently
- Household substance abuse
- Household mental illness
- Parental separation or divorce
- Incarcerated household member
Even moving towns or schools can be perceived by a child as a traumatic event.
All children experience an ACE or two. The American Association of Pediatricians holds that “While some stress in life is normal—and even necessary for development—the type of stress that results when a child experiences ACEs may become toxic when there is “strong, frequent, or prolonged activation of the body’s stress response systems in the absence of the buffering protection of a supportive, adult relationship.” Remember that half of children in Taos County reported that they do not have a single adult in their homes they feel takes an interest in them. ACEs also have different impacts, depending on the age at which they are experienced and the sheer number of ACEs accumulated. Children who live in poverty experience a higher proportion than other kids – half of all children under 5 in our county.
The impact? Prolonged stress causes the development of a different type of brain – the hypervigilant, stressed brain. It even changes the expression of a person’s genes in a way that alters the overall stress response. This genetic change has even been documented in cases of historical trauma. Genetic changes can take place and still be apparent in the human genome after a famine – decades later in the descendants. Just think of enslavement, colonization, forced relocation, and violent assimilation. Add this detail to the story.
The Center for Disease Control and Kaiser-Permanente conducted a large scale ACE study. Their results? The more ACEs you have, the greater the risk for chronic disease, mental illness, violence and being a victim of violence. ACEs are scored on a scale of 0-10. People with an ACE score of 4 are twice as likely to be smokers and seven times more likely to be an alcoholic. Having an ACE score of 4 increases the risk of emphysema or chronic bronchitis by nearly 400 percent, and suicide by 1200 percent. People with high ACE scores are more likely to be violent, to have more marriages, more broken bones, more drug prescriptions, more depression, and more autoimmune diseases. People with an ACE score of 6 or higher are at risk of their lifespan being shortened by 20 years. ACEs are responsible for workplace absenteeism, and costs in health care, emergency response, mental health and criminal justice.
Ready for the truly interesting feature of this research? The 17,000 ACE Study participants were mostly white, middle- and upper-middle class, college-educated, and all had jobs and great health care as members of Kaiser Permanente.
Again, we know the story in our county. The NM Youth Risk and Resiliency Survey of students grades 9-12 lays it all out for us. Of our youth, a third use tobacco products, almost a quarter drink alcohol before age 13, 14 out of 100 adolescents binge drink, a quarter use marijuana, and a quarter of our children have made a suicide plan or have attempted suicide.
What do ACEs have to do with play? My own research has always focused on healthy, untraumatized children. In my work in schools, the need to understand children who are coping with trauma has emerged as a necessary component in my work. My aunt Donna is a play therapist in Savannah, Georgia – we’re from the Appalachia region of SC, so just imagine her accent because I cannot even recreate it. I called her and asked the question – how does trauma in childhood impact play? My strong hypothesis is that it probably has profound effects. She spoke at length about taking the time to form true relationships with children who have been traumatized. Looking past their hurt and defenses to find the beauty that is in their beings. And to carefully try to figure out their story – What is causing their withdrawal? Their anxiety? Their defiance? Is it undiagnosed ADHD, oppositional defiance disorder, reactions to trauma? This part of their story is important to understanding how to help them manage and heal their reactions to life that are hypervigilant and stressed. Each case is unique and requires unique interactions in a safe and trusting relationship. And we can observe their play – in play therapy situations with traumatized children she sees the child repetitively and obsessively act out the trauma, think PTSD and constantly reliving and reimagining a traumatic event. And, a lot of children do not play spontaneously and even actively avoid play – wouldn’t you get fatigued reenacting the same pain over and over? Some children exhibit play that is too focused, very emotional, and difficult to interrupt.
Healthy play emerges spontaneously when a child (or adult) is in a free and safe environment. Children who are not traumatized play easily and spontaneously and use many objects, indeed the entire play space(!), to enhance and guide play events. Traumatized children, if they play at all, keep their area for play small and use a limited number of objects in their stories – their play tends to be intense, serious, and express more negative emotions.
The CDC, based on the Kaiser Permanente study, outlines the gaps in the research on ACEs and their effects. While it seems apparent that ACEs lead to social, emotional, and cognitive impairment, the mechanism of causality is not fully known. Here’s my best guess – given that play is the work of childhood and deep play is the work of humans, with the purposes of helping us learn and creating culture and ways of being, then the impact on play seen in children who have experienced trauma gives us a window into the self they are constructing in their play. Rather than enacting social roles like the hunter or the caregiver or wait staff at a restaurant, they are embodying the roles they have observed and the narratives of their lives. Their perceptual fields are diminished so they do not experience a possibility space of ways of being in the world. An expansive possibility space is necessary for problem solving in real life and in play. It is what helps us be and become a healthy and thriving member of our tribe.
Now for the final chapter of this Taos story, before depression rates increase in this room. The final chapter is hope. We are fortunate in this community to have services for people, like H.E.A.R.T of Taos, CAV, Golden Willow, Tri-County Community Services, Dreamtree, the Sangre de Cristo Youth Ranch, and I could keep listing them. These organizations help provide the safety, security, and deep work necessary to heal, or avoid, the worst effects of trauma. We also have our schools.
A large part of my passion, vision, and mission in life is to work to transform classrooms into places of play from crafting the narrative of history to the work of mathematics and science – curriculum that embeds the principles of deep play so that students can learn with their entire beings, not just limited memory pathways for discrete facts in their brains. Classrooms that honor cultures, family backgrounds, and individual identities, in which teachers see their first role as relationship builder so that students feel known and that some adult in their world genuinely cares about them and their future. Instruction that honors the social and imaginative nature of the human mind. We have many classrooms and teachers who do the work of this type of transformation of education. And…Imagine if all children viewed school as not a prison but a place of learning through play. Imagine school as another service for health in which children who have been traumatized can have a safe place to learn how to play in healthy ways – with ideas, with others, and spontaneously with an open field of view. Imagine the shift in our story and have hope.