When I taught first grade, I had a student, David, who had difficulty learning to read. He was a sweet boy who smiled at me kindly while I kept trying and failing to help him. His penmanship was stunning, though – so stunning the other children would comment almost daily, “Teacher, look how beautiful his words are.” I agreed with them. David would smile and thank everyone, but still, he could not read. At the same time, I had a little group of wiggle worms who, I thought, had trouble concentrating. It was tough holding their attention during reading and most other things. Despite my best intentions, they drove me a bit crazy.

Back then, teachers had more space to schedule their days; I scheduled two twenty minute free-times every day. Students could take out tiles, pattern blocks, unifix cubes, art supplies, papers, and books, and play. My little group of wiggle worms worked together every day, twice a day, all year long and painstakingly set a couple hundred one-inch tiles up in a single line (curvy or straight) for the entire twenty minutes. They strategized as a team, starting in different spots and coming together. If someone accidentally knocked a tile over, they knew how to stop the damage from spreading. They did all this so when I said, “Okay, time to clean up!” the leader for the day would flick the first tile in the line and we would watch all the tiles go down like dominos. Geniuses. They weren’t wiggle worms; they were engineers.

One time, David went off by himself with pattern blocks. Intently, he started creating what we might call a mandala –a brilliantly symmetrical design that seemed to go on and on. Children came over to watch but let him be. I went over to watch but also let him be. When twenty minutes were up his design was about 24” x 24,” and he didn’t look ready to stop. I gave him more time. Students carefully walked around him and his design and got back to lessons. He used every pattern block for his 48” x 48” work of art.

I called the sixth-grade teacher into my room to see David’s work. Blown away, he asked David if he could duplicate the design with the paper pattern shapes. David smiled and got busy gluing the shapes on an oversized piece of black paper, taking the rest of the school day. Finished, it looked exactly like his block piece. It was perfect. The next morning at line-up, David and some classmates paraded past every child and teacher in that school with his beautiful masterpiece. Later, the principal framed his work and put it up in the teacher’s room next to the cabinet with the file that stated David failed his statewide reading test.

I would never have known about my engineers or my precious little artist if they had not had free time. How do we fail ourselves if we do not take time to play? What do we fail to give our children?

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