Let Them Eat Cake

04/09/2015 10:57 am ET | Updated Jun 09, 2015

How do adults play? How do the simple games of childhood factor into business, art, culture and human relationships? Those who can play best are often the most effective. Einstein said, "Play is the highest form of research." Those who can improvise, be creative, make others laugh, adapt quickly to a new situation, take a tense situation and make it into an adventure, those are the people we admire. Why do we all struggle to connect the effect of playing as a child to success as adults?

Education experts acknowledge that play helps children actively construct new knowledge about objects, people, and events by integrating new experiences with what they already know. Play is the best way for children to learn. It is also a marvelous ability to take into adulthood.

My toddler, Sakhi, has been attending preschool in New York City, and we recently went to a parent-teacher conference. It was a novel experience for me as I'm usually on the other side of the table, meeting with parents of the toddlers at Ubuntu Education Fund's preschool in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. It was a gratifying experience. The teachers love him, and say he's a pleasure to have in class. He makes beautiful pictures, plays well with others, and fits right in. They recently did an assessment, however, and he didn't do so well. They pointed to the color blue and Sakhi grinned wickedly and said, "Orange!"

I know Sakhi knows blue, and the teacher knows it too. He was just being silly and playing, and after all, play is what the program is all about. Just like Ubuntu's Positive Start program, which is also "play-based," where 80 township children learn English, Xhosa, blue, orange, baking, manners, and spend all day having a merry time. We get funding for this, and we get excellent results. Why, then, do I keep having to explain myself to donors? And, more troublingly, to myself?

What are the metrics? Where are they on the literacy continuum? How often do you test their motor skills, cognition, and numeracy? We are asked all these things constantly. We do test our children, and we are very committed to their motor skills, cognition, and numeracy, but we are equally committed to their imaginations and wonder why donors who happily send their own children to play-based schools in the global North are so nervous about the same principles applied to disadvantaged children.

My good friend Tovah Klein, a child psychologist and the Director of the well-known Barnard College Center for Toddler Development says, "It is within play that children learn to love learning, to make choices and take risks, to gain a sense of themselves as people who matter and who have an impact on their world. Given the chance, all children play."

Children play naturally. They are superheroes or they pretend to be sleeping, flying or playing house. As adults, we think these things are cute and we take pictures or talk in baby voices.

"Play" is the word of the moment in early childhood education. And yet you just have to Google early childhood education to find an endless supply of papers about how poor children need more structure, more strictness, more this, more that, based on faulty assumptions that poor children somehow have different basic needs and desires. More dangerous, we assume that poor children have families who don't care as much about their well-being as we do about our own children. Sakhi can joke about colors and fail an assessment and we will be fine, but if little Andile does the same thing in Zwide Township, we have to assess her as behind on the curve and tick a box for a donor somewhere to look at and pass judgment.

I have seen wealthier communities embrace education methodologies that are based in play and all that goes with it. With their own children, they are very happy to see progress in the form of art, performance or just anecdotal feedback from the teachers. These all seem logical to them. However, when it comes to supporting early childhood development in the townships, we need to show test scores.

Why is a happy and engaged toddler not enough?

In a private preschool in New York, if kids are fascinated by snakes, teachers might spend a week having fun learning about snakes or take an impromptu trip to the Reptile House at the Bronx Zoo. At Ubuntu, we would respond similarly, but we would definitely be defensive if a donor happened to visit and asked why we were not following the schedule we presented in our grant proposal. And in order to answer convincingly, we need to be totally committed ourselves, as educators and parents, to the principle of play.

This kind of double-standard brings up all sorts of uncomfortable associations, and smacks unpleasantly both of Bantu education in South Africa and the gaping chasms in current education for the wealthy and the struggling in the US. Do we want to nurture creative, ethical, inspired adults, or automatons who know their numbers and never stop to wonder what would happen if they said orange instead of blue?