Open ended Play, Mathematics and keeping alive the humane wonder in a changing world (Part 1)

Open ended Play, Mathematics and keeping alive the humane wonder in a changing world (Part 1)

"If you are lucky enough to find a way of life you love, you have to find the courage to live it." John Irving

Recently I have been working with my daughter while I introduce her to the various concepts in mathematics. While working in Nooks, trying to keep it open-ended, and working on curating the play materials for Nooks while having innumerable conversations with educators and my engineering background is making me wonder how we were introduced to the mathematical concepts and how I would like to make it different for my daughter. Here I am very much aware of the emphasis education systems purport to place on computer skills and technology as the basis of their “education”. We are also familiar here with the failure of the system to teach/make them love basic math to large numbers of children.
As the world brace for the impact of A.I, creativity is often held up as a uniquely human quality, less vulnerable to the forces of technological disruption and critical for the future, maybe it's the right time to rethink how we as human beings keep our creativity alive and keep it grounded in an understanding of and respect for the natural world that we operate on and around.

“All of us —no matter who you are or where you are from —can cultivate mathematical affection.”
A question may arise why it's important? We may instead ask ourselves something differently, how do we achieve human flourishing? What is human flourishing? What is a well-lived life in today’s world? And of course how mathematics is related? And the very important one, what use has the learning of mathematics for life as a whole? And what does learning mathematics look like? A very important one I guess.

Of course, by now we all know as parents that passing the examinations is certainly not its sole function. Nor it would be any use for bringing in commercial excellence and money making as technology would take over the repetitive patterns of work and do it more skillfully.

Innovation in its way may be such an important phase in human civilization as we may observe in history, maybe its a way of Nature to make us realize that as human beings we are capable of doing so much more that may raise human flourishing. Because every invention/innovation/idea has a time and even today’s date we hear about many ideas like “its time has not yet come, its well ahead of time”. So there is still a  time and need factor that is beyond our control or maybe we control it with our actions and immediate needs that bring in the next wave of innovations. A very separate topic to explore though, just a little spark of thought.

Maybe the right answer to learning mathematics and being interested in the process of learning is still very similar to the ancient times:-- “Mathematics' prime value lies in its ability to develop our thinking, our real, willed, independent thinking, a thinking capable of directing its powers to cognize both the material world and the invisible world within ourselves which makes us humane.” Is it not the very essence of everyday life? Is it not the essence of human flourishing?

When we are near to our humane ness we are near to ourselves and creativity. Each one of us has some kind of unique humaneness in us, and exploring it in a way that satisfies us, might be the real work of the future education system. Learning is different and unique for each individual and our work as parents/educators is to create an environment that lets them be curious and fail and get back up to raise questions until they are satisfied with their answers.

Those environments beaming with creativity, playfulness, joy, and interest won’t be something that any technological invention/circumstance would be able to snatch from them. And the right thing to ask ourselves now “ Why is education important”? And may be along with it "What is education in today's changing world?"

As Lewis Hyde echoes a similar thought in the book The Gift “The gifts of the inner world must be accepted as gifts in the outer world if they are to retain their vitality.” 
What is Play and what's its relation to human flourishing?
“Play is the exultation of the possible.”  Martin Buber.

My work makes me sit and observe the children playing while parents work/socialize and many times I wonder how each child has their own way of exploring the same object if we keep ourselves from stepping into their exploration/play.  Each has their own way of perceiving things, and as they say that for the very young child play is the greatest learning experience of all.
And may be play and exploration are very similar processes for a baby. Play stems from a deep human desire when an environment that is nurturing, safe, and stimulating while their basic needs are met is available. As Christina(my mentor and Play Director for PN) reminds us every time we set up the environment.

Play is hard to define but has several characteristics that can be interlinked with exploration. And maybe pure play is a mark of human flourishing?
Unfortunately, we observe, as children grow big, most education system makes it a cookie-cutting procedure and individuality are lost along with the urge to explore.
“Exploration is a deep human desire and the mark of human flourishing. You don’t need a lot of resources, except yourself to be an explorer”

We just need an environment where it lets us be.

Similarly, mathematical exploration begins with the very same questions that get raised while exploring the materials of the open-ended environment. The only requirement to be a math explorer is the ability to raise questions. Maybe all children do these? Unless specific environments don’t let them fail and ask them to memorize to pass an exam.
Exploration cultivates the virtue of imagination. It also stimulates the virtue of creativity. The challenges of exploration often require new tools to solve problems that arise. It might give birth to research and the continuation of the experiments. Exploration cultivates an “expectation of enchantments”, they are excited by the thrill of finding the unexpected, especially things weird and wonderful. And all these make us humane? Takes us very near to the qualities of  “ human flourishing”.

It's this humane quality of wonder, excitement, and creativity that makes us alive, makes us play and explore.It's an organic procedure, as with any other though its requirement is “being ourselves” first. Knowing that I am safe here while I explore, play, and fail repeatedly. Is our society ready to create such environments for our children?

Ending my thoughts with the below quote:

“It seems to me that the poet has only to perceive that which others don’t perceive, to look deeper than others look. And mathematicians do the same thing”
Sofia Kovalevskaya.

Can we work together to create such environments for our children? As we explore, we can come to the conclusion that it does not take much to be interested and playful while we design such environments.

As we explore open-ended environment, mathematics, play and nature, we would love to share with you all the following piece of writing by Dr. Carla Gull

Math and Loose Parts in Nature
From observing and leading natural loose parts play, facilitating workshops on math and loose parts in nature, and using mathematical tools…

It's an ongoing conversation and we would love to keep it alive with questions and critiques. As a facilitator of an open-ended environment, we love critiques, and debates and welcome them with open arms.
Till our next newsletter, I would love to think about how and why babies are being curious and behave like a scientist in a nurturing environment.?What is the definition of nurturing environment?

Until next one

Stay curious and healthy


I am a mom living in the SF Bay Area and have been working full time on the project Parents' Nook now as a co-creator and researcher connecting its social and economic aspects to technology.