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Learning at its Best

Play is learning. Learning is play.

Jump Rope at Street Games 2011
The Garden Road School

Most of my childhood was spent on the street playing street games. We didn’t call it “street games” though, it was just what we did. It was our way of life. Growing up in Brooklyn, the street was my playground. Everyday I looked forward to stepping outside my house and discovering what adventures may unfold. Who will be home to play? What game will we play? Will we hang out in the clubhouse that we built in the alley way? Watching TV was something we did on saturday mornings, who would want to miss an episode of The Super Friends? Other than that, what else was there to do but play outside?

We had no ipods or ipads. We had “istreet” and “iplay”.

The games we played on our block back in the 70’s and 80’s taught me so many things. First of all, it was all mixed ages because we played with whatever kids were on the block, so our crew ranged from 5 years old up to 16. No grown ups were there to settle our disputes. We had to figure things out for ourselves. We had a lot of independence and autonomy and we managed to have a great time.

Teaching how to play Skelzey

There were these intense and wonderful games of skelzey (also known as “scully” in other neighborhoods) that began with the process of dripping melted crayon wax into beer bottle caps. (Yes, we used matches on our own and managed not to burn anything down.) We became expert at creating skelzey caps that were just the right weight and we put quite a bit of effort into the design of the melted crayon wax. Then there was the whole process of drawing the court which was quite involved and required exact measurements. The preparation took as long as the game which sometimes took hours to finish.

“Chase” was the best collaborative game we played. It was like team hide seek. It involved the whole block of kids. We would play after dinner and usually my stoop was the “base”. Sometimes a group of kids from the next block over would come and we would play one block against the other. We were totally self organized. I don’t recall parents ever being involved in our play except when they were calling us in for dinner.

The dynamic of mixed ages, building problem solving skills, collaborative play, independence, autonomy; these are things I did not learn in school. I learned them through playing. I hear a lot of parents who come to our school seeking to instill these kind of experiences and qualities for their children.

How do you provide that in a school environment? PLAY. Yes, school can be FUN. I’m talking about the fun of learning not just fun for fun’s sake. It’s purpose driven fun and it’s very rewarding.

Tug of war!

A community that comes together for games is a thriving community. I lived in a neighborhood where everyone knew each other, we had the safety net of the community. The parents had each other’s back and even though we had a lot of freedom and felt very independent, they always knew where we were, they knew who we were with and that we were safe. I think it was that safety net of community that allowed us to play to the fullest extent possible.

This is why we have embarked on a Community Supported Education model for The Garden Road School. With a strong community base, children have the benefit of an “extended family” of diverse yet like minded families who can support them and are intent on providing children with an education where play is learning and learning is play.

Last year we had our first Street Games event at our school and we attracted people from ages 0-80. Everyone had a good time, whether they were reminiscing about the old days or experiencing stick ball for the first time.

It cost very little to put on.  All that’s needed is some chalk, a broom stick, some spaldine balls, and you have hours of fun. We decided to make it an annual event. Our next Street Games event is coming up on May 12th.

If you work with elementary aged children, I encourage you to get them outside, give them some chalk and a ball and let em go! They may need a little guidance in the beginning, but once they get the hang of it, they will have hours of independent PLAY.

If you want to host a Street Games event, contact me ( and I can tell you how we did it. It’s a great way to bring the community together.

Hope its useful.


9 thoughts on “Play is learning. Learning is play.

  1. Reblogged this on cmallari.

    Posted by cmallari | March 22, 2012, 3:16 am
  2. I can not agree with you more. Where i live, its rural, and you didnt have street games, we had the creek, the mountain, and our dirt bikes. There was about 9 of us friends who lived on the road. We were together, outside needless to say, 24-7. to this day, we are still all good friends. we hunt, fish, and still ride 4 wheelers and dirt bikes. The road community is thriving still with our little kids, but it will never be like the early to mid 80’s.
    you are only gonna see those games fade more and more and see communities struggle until we join together again.

    Posted by bones | March 22, 2012, 7:17 am
    • I dreamed of having a creek to play in as a child! I agree that these games are fading. That’s why I am trying to promote street games. The best part of the experience last year was to see how joyful everyone was to play simple games and to witness the exchange between the parents and grandparents teaching the children the games they played when they were young. There is so much value and so much to learn from these games. And of course when children are not over-scheduled they can make up their own!
      Thanks for replying.
      Play on!

      Posted by Donna Mikkelsen | March 22, 2012, 5:48 pm
  3. One of the best memories I have of growing up was being able to join my big brother in a game of chase with the kids from the “other Bay 14th Street”. Great article- so true!!

    Posted by Michele | March 22, 2012, 9:25 am
  4. What a terrific posting, Donna! You combine personal testimony/experience with a more generalized recommendation, with enough specific examples to let anyone–not just people who grew up in city neighborhoods–understand both the value of your experience and the potential value to all young people today.

    I have long been wondering how, given the changing demographics and technology that is the reality of today’s youth, we might replicate the world that you describe so that the opportunity for self-organized free play is even a possibility. Given today’s suburbia, with so few people outside except to get to their car, where they will be transported to organized sports, music lessons, school, etc.; and with the ubiquitous screens of computers, smartphones, iPads, etc. drawing so much attention away from the people around us, it is hard to see when and where the street games that you describe could even be possible. One place to start, though, is with the free schools/democratic schools and the resource centers for homeschoolers/unschoolers (such as the one that I have been involved with for 34 years,, as you yourself have suggested.

    Thanks for the added encouragement to make this happen.

    Peter Bergson

    Posted by Peter A. Bergson | March 23, 2012, 12:21 pm
    • Thanks Peter!
      I agree with 100% about the issues facing today’s suburbia and even in the city (no one in my old neighborhood plays on the street anymore!). I do think a school can be more like a community center. It can be a place where we collectively push back the exigencies of life and rescue play from abandonment.
      Open Connections looks like a wonderful place! So glad to make the connection.
      All the very best,

      Posted by Donna Mikkelsen | March 23, 2012, 6:06 pm
  5. We experience great joy making up rules for our four square games a few times each week – Watermelon Choo-Choo being a favorite.

    This post has me thinking about four-squaring the classroom – inviting students to make up righteous “rules” about how to play with our work on a rotating basis as we each get a turn to move through the 1-square.

    With thanks,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | March 24, 2012, 9:06 am
  6. I find your blog generously inspiring and it feels that you know what you are talking about, since you have done it. Therefore an enhancement for others as well. Some will say “Well, the world has changed” and it has indeed, because the street seems to be not such a safe place anylonger, whether in absolute terms or relatively, because of the inflation of extreeme cases by the media. However, the virtual world is as unsafe/safe as the streets. The difference being that in there, parents dont really know much of what is going on because unlike the children who are digital native, parents are digital immigrants. However, there are also learning games in the virtual world which involve important skills such as thinking and creativity, and learning through this is really lots of fun as well and necessary for a proper formation at this time, alongside the physical, spontenous street games, as you call them, not instead. Some may think that community ‘like minds’ mean the same views or socioeconomic status, however it really means those who value trusting and being trusted as a quality to gather onto.

    Posted by Edith Kimchi | March 25, 2012, 12:19 pm

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