The Importance of Play

The outer wall of the new Fraser Mustard Academy. There's a hidden message in the letters...

The outer wall of the new Fraser Mustard Academy. There’s a hidden message in the letters…

My second week at Theatre Direct was focussed on meetings between Rhona Matheson (from Starcatchers in Edinburgh) and Toronto area artists, educators, policy makers, theatre directors and theatre creators interested in Early Years Theatre. One of the highlights of Rhona’s visit was a trip to the new Fraser Mustard Academy, a school entirely dedicated to Junior and Senior kindergarten children.

http://www.thestar.com/yourtoronto/education/2013/08/29/thorncliffes_allday_kindergarten_school_offers_bright_purposebuilt_space_for_700.html

 Fraser Mustard Academy is an outgrowth of Thorncliffe Park School, the largest elementary/junior school in North America. Housing 2000 students, Thorncliffe Park needed to expand, and they built an addition designed around the needs of children 3 – 6 years old. They opened their doors  this September to 700 children. The school is still under construction, but the passion and enthusiasm for young children is everywhere in evidence.

The school is built on a philosophy of respecting the child, and everything is built for their perspective. There are large open spaces for physical activity, dance, and even riding tricycles. You can see the inner workings of the building. Pipes, tubes and electrical wires are left visible because “we want kids to see how things work,” says principal Catherine Ure.

A ramp surrounds the bright central atrium

A ramp surrounds the bright central atrium. It’s perfect for tricycle riding.

One of the first things that struck me as we toured the halls was the sparseness of decoration. Most elementary schools that I have been in are overwhelmingly filled with pictures, alphabets, notices, words. Here, the walls are deliberately bare. “We want the children to decorate their own space. We are following their interests,” says Catherine. Art and supplies are organized carefully, and everywhere there is a feeling of order and calm. “When we show respect for the environment we are also showing respect for the children,” says Catherine.

Thorncliffe Park and Fraser Mustard Academy are in a part of the city that has little in the way of safe outdoor space, so providing the opportunities for developing gross motor skills is essential. It is a school that challenged my assumptions. Coming as I do from a natural environment in the middle of the woods, my first response was that the school was in a horrifyingly desolate wasteland.

The old portables and construction site at the back of the school

The old portables and construction site at the back of the school

But Catherine made me question and completely re-think my assumptions. This is where these kids live, this is the community they know, this is their environment. Catherine pointed out a large floor to ceiling window that overlooked a parking lot and loading dock of the neighbouring mall. “The kids can sit here and watch everything that is going on. They can count cars, watch deliveries, see the tree – there IS a tree—change colours.” Where I had seen desolation, she saw a world of activity to learn about, a lesson plan about the world right in front of their eyes. Inside, the school is calm and orderly, focused and welcoming. It feels safe and welcoming. It feels like a very good place to be.

Classroom filled with art supplies and plants

Classroom filled with art supplies and plants

Literacy plays a huge role in the planning of the Fraser Mustard Academy. Even before the move into the new space, they were educating kids to a very high reading level. Their aim is that children graduate from senior kindergarten with the reading ability of a 10 year old.  But none of that is at the sacrifice of play. Play is fundamental to learning. Play that is artistically motivated and designed stimulates children to be curious and explore the world around them.

“Scientific evidence demonstrates that neural pathways in the brains of children are built through the exploration, thinking, problem solving and language expression that occur during play.” (Ontario Early Years Policy Framework 2013)

Artists well understand the role of play in creativity, and increasing they are being asked to incorporate creativity into play-based learning. Theatre Direct is partnering with the Fraser Mustard Academy to offer a series of artists’ residencies that will bring creative drama and story telling into all of the 24 kindergarten classes in the school over the course of the year.

With new works in development for babies, toddlers and 3 – 5 year olds, it is a really exciting time for me to be at Theatre Direct. Just as young brains are developing, Theatre Direct will be there with inspiring and creative sounds, colours, movements, textures and wonder.

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