Legos have been beloved staples of early childhood for decades. The corporation that makes them recently closed a search for a professor of play at Cambridge, a position covered by a $5 million endowment to the university. Also included in the gift is a research center dedicated to this primary engine of human development.
Susan DuFresne is a kindergarten teacher in Washington State, where a former Microsoft executive is director of the Department of Early Learning. She has given a new face to early childhood activism, raising her impassioned voice for social justice and educational equity and against the corporatization of education.
By Susan DuFresne
I admit it. I was enticed by the title: “Children Should Learn Mainly through Play Until Age 8, Says Lego.” The article, which has garnered 230,000 “likes” since it was published in March of 2016, at The Guardian, was written by Lucy Ward, the newspaper’s former social affairs correspondent.
I tweeted it out, not thinking about the photograph. The words, supporting play, were so powerful. The image depicts three children: a blonde, blue-eyed girl in an Indian headdress, a blond, brown-eyed boy in a Viking hat, and a boy of color in a cowboy hat. While I work every day to be culturally “awake,” this image filtered through years of media to my own childhood.
Cultural appropriation is contingent upon complicity and institutionalized oppression. I grew up in the ‘60s in North Dakota, where it was commonplace to join in a game of “Cowboys and Indians.” John Wayne, The Lone Ranger, and Wagon Train created a market for toys that served to normalize genocide. As a child, I had never stopped once to empathize with any of my Native-American peers. How might they feel about playing Cowboys and Indians? The demand for the toys, sadly, remains today. From plastic cowboys and Indians to army men to violent video games, the market continually profits from permanent war, colonization, and cultural appropriation.
As a kindergarten teacher, I value play. Thinking of my classroom and its contents, I am grateful that my district and my state sanction and promote play in kindergarten. I provide an hour daily of “choice time”—an opportunity for free, unstructured play.
I make sure to provide all the stuff of open-ended, creative, imaginative play—art materials, Legos, wooden blocks, cars, models for children to create their own maps, a wide variety of uniforms for dramatic play, and puppet theaters. Children love to take on adult roles, trying them on for size. A good number of them already have an idea of what they want to be when they grow up. Children learn so many skills necessary to becoming happy, successful, accomplished and self-actualized adults through play.
But I need to think more critically about Lego. This mega-corporation has been a darling of early childhood experts, providing much to cherish. They have most of this right, but they clearly have some issues to address.
So do I. My public elementary school and my own home were built on stolen land. Needless to say, culturally responsive pedagogy—as we call it in the field—was unheard of during my early years of education. I have three large tubs of the company’s creations in my classroom. What’s in my Lego collection? Should I be throwing some of it out? How about other items in my dramatic play collection?
Think of culturally relevant pedagogy as the antidote to cultural appropriation. Gloria Ladson-Billings, who holds a chair in urban education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, coined the term in her 1994 book, The Dreamkeepers, defining it as “a pedagogy that empowers students intellectually, socially, emotionally, and politically by using cultural referents to impart knowledge, skills, and attitudes.” Many of us—including those who grew up in the homelands of indigenous peoples—know little about Native-Americans. We’re desperately playing catch-up.
Ladson-Billings’ framework offers us a blueprint—especially urgent with the onslaught of corporate reformers. They have a different plan for our children—and it’s not developmentally or culturally appropriate. They would have a future of children using Oculus Rift headsets, tablets, and artificial intelligence chat-bots, replacing human classroom teachers, removing any play that does not involve technology. Huge profits and data mining motivate them. They are already laying siege to culturally relevant pedagogy, according to Camika Royal and Simone Gibson, professors at Morgan State University:
Though it is a professional gamble, it is possible to be a culturally relevant educator within the hyper-standardized, hyper-accountable, neoliberal school environment. Such educators must be highly skilled masters of their craft, strategic, and subversive, adhering to all tenets of CRP and mandated curricula.
This is truly the new wave of colonization.