Posted on Aug 1, 1999

For Greg Angus '90, a Watson fellowship spent studying how people use toys in education confirmed his true calling: teaching.

“I don't remember deciding to become a teacher. By the end of my fellowship, I realized I was going to be a teacher,” says Angus, now a third-grade teacher at Arlington Elementary School in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

As an undergraduate, Angus went on a term abroad in China and was struck by the way in which Chinese children played together, the toys they played with, and the ways that their play seemed in a way to mirror national identity. “I couldn't help but notice the objects that were available to children in China,” he says. There were great differences in toys available in the countryside and the city, and he recognized a difference in the way that children played in these areas due in part to the toys that were available to them.

At the urging of Byron Nichols, professor of political science, and Bill Thomas, professor of French and director of international programs, Angus applied for a Watson Fellowship, which supports one year of research outside of the U.S. Traveling to the United Kingdom, Zimbabwe, and China, he observed hundreds of children at play with their toys. Though he began with a focus on toys as tools for passing on cultural ideas and values, he eventually began to concentrate on how toys are used in education and physical therapy, especially for special needs children.

He was particularly struck by the ways in which toys were used in rehabilitation. For example, an art project for children in a burn unit at a hospital in Scotland required “every possible modification to a paintbrush so that the children could paint,” he says. “The best part was that whole ceiling was covered with the paintings so that the children could see them from their beds,” he says. “If that's not a child-centered approach, I don't know what is.”

Angus was similarly impressed with a toy library in Zimbabwe where children could sign out toys like books in a library. The toys were categorized by what skills they foster in children, such as hand-eye coordination or problem-solving, so that they would be both entertaining and educational for each child.

The challenge Angus found in working with children convinced him to become a teacher. He went to graduate school and began teaching in Boston before moving to his current position in the Hudson Valley.

“It's very exciting to be able to teach someone how to learn,” he says. “The content, though interesting, is really secondary.” What drives him is seeing his students understand — seeing the lightbulb go off in their heads, so to speak. “You can see on their faces when they understand,” he says. “I strive to have them become aware of their own learning process and how to recognize the moment of understanding. Even the kids refer to it as 'the lightbulb.' ”

Angus also serves as the arts in education coordinator at his school, working with artists, storytellers, songwriters, and authors to bring the arts into the classrooms. In the summer he directs the music program at Camp Hillcroft, a nearby summer camp. “Kids don't realize until later that creating lyrics teaches language arts through music. They're usually too busy laughing.”

After having studied a world of toys, Angus praises perennial favorites such as Legos, Etch-a-Sketch, Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys, and other open-ended toys because they encourage creativity, but he is troubled by the increasing popularity of toys such as movie and television action figures, which call for simple reenactment rather than imaginative play.

“The amount of creative control and risk-taking involved in play is diminishing,” Angus explains. “As a teacher I see how that translates into their work and problem-solving at school. I often see students who are frustrated if they don't know exactly how to do something immediately. Personally, I believe that this is related to how much practice children have being creative. When a family limits their child's play by choosing only one-dimensional toys, they limit the practice.”

Angus is limited in his use of toys in his classroom by the requirements of a state curriculum, but he does encourage play as a learning experience. He uses block play to teach math skills and has discovered that many of his third-graders this year are interested in chess (last year it was origami). “We also tend to do a lot of things where you create your own game,” he says. And it's not rare that he sees the same kind of imaginative play in his classroom that he observed in Zimbabwe, China, and Scotland.