Play School

Margaret Dow Towsley
Margaret Dow Towsley
At age four, before I went to regular school, my parents sent me to “Play School”, which may sound like an oxymoron to some. Actually the place was called “The Children’s Play School”, and it was founded (in 1935) and run by Margaret Grace Dow Towsley, a feminist, a University of Michigan graduate, and woman of wealth who was deeply committed to issues of child development. She was a founding member of the local chapter of Planned Parenthood. In the 1940s she led the effort to gender-integrate the Ann Arbor chapter of the YMCA, one of only two chapters in the country to accept males and females at the time. In the 1950s she served two terms on the Ann Arbor City Council. In founding her “Play School”, Towsley was acting on her belief that play was critical to child development, self-confidence and a sense of worth.

Towsley may well have been inspired by Maria Montessori, the famous Italian scientist, feminist and humanistic educator, who said that, “Education should no longer be mostly imparting of knowledge, but must take a new path, seeking the release of human potentialities.” Montessori demonstrated in her schools (and packaged in her “method” that is used today in thousands of schools around the world) that children learn best in an enriched child-centered environment where they can explore, touch and learn at their own direction. This should be an environment without tests or grades, which retard learning and self-esteem by introducing a negative and debilitating competition.

Conventional wisdom says that kids need to go to school and get formal instruction, testing and grading, by adults, to learn, and that play is something you do for amusement and leisure after you come home from school (and have finished your homework). But I agree with Towsley, Montessori, and many others today who say that “play is the work of children”. Unstructured time spent by kids doing whatever strikes them as fun or meaningful is the main way most kids learn, and move forward in their own development, at their own direction, at their own pace.

I have only a few recollections of “Play School”. I certainly remember the place, two green houses side by side on Forest street south of the University campus. I also have a memory of building a rocket ship out of some sort of large wood boxes that I could climb into and pretend to pilot, and another of being out in the backyard digging in the dirt.

So my mom and dad had the same insight as Towsley and Montessori and made my world, particularly the basement, the backyard, and with the park across the street, an enriched environment where I could explore and learn at my own direction. Here is a list of some of the most useful items that I remember to have “enriched” my basement and backyard environments:

1. Construction paper and cardboard boxes, small and large
2. Scissors (not pointy) capable of cutting those boxes
3. Clear tape for binding things together plus making windows
4. Chalk and some concrete surface that can be drawn on and then rinsed or swabbed with water to clean
5. Lots of human figures (mine were mostly military, but could be civilian instead, or both) of maybe the one to three inch tall variety
6. Animal figures of a comparable size including domesticated, wild and dangerous animals (loved those dinosaurs)
7. Constructible materials like Lincoln Logs, Duplos, Legos, Tinker Toys, wooden blocks
8. Lots of dirt or sand with water available

Bottom line, it’s really anything that facilitates the imagination of the kid to go any direction it wants to. The toy or the tool shouldn’t dictate how it is used. When I see those pre-programmed “fun” learning tools advertised on TV I cringe.

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