Making a case for “Play”

January 29, 2015



What’s the first image that comes to mind when you hear the word “play”? Is it laughter? Happiness? Youth? Whatever the image is, it’s undoubtedly a picture that conjures up a smile on your face and a feeling of warmth in your heart. For me, it’s my two children running around the house, taking on some sort of creative game they made up and laughing until their belly hurts; or a snapshot of my son diligently building lego creations with accompanied stories and strict instructions for me as to how I should interact with his masterpieces; or the buzzing and humming that comes from my daughters’ room as she cares for her dolls and creates scenarios about their well-being. These are scenes that always stop be dead in my tracks and force me to pause and appreciate the joy they have for life-a life that is“free” to them in so many ways-free to create, explore, push boundaries, and make sense of their world.

Sometimes these moments are overshadowed because I know this play (and thus sheer happiness and eagerness) will halt for them-it’s as if I expect it. Why does it feel inevitable? I know!…it’s because friends of mine with children in elementary school warn me that they will have homework in kindergarten, or because in my work I see what secondary schools look like that are so focused on preparing students for college that their workload is 3-4 hours a night and class time is spent isolated on laptops or passively listening to a lecture. Don’t get me wrong-I’m in full support of developing discipline, good habits and work-ethic in children, but I also want to develop other attributes that I know will bring them joy, happiness, stimulation and a fulfilled life.

Hilary Conklin (2014) confirms my reservations about the future of my children in school in this enlightening passage (featured in “Toward More Joyful Learning”, AERA):

If creativity, imagination, and play are considered critical student outcomes, where are they featured in existing frameworks for teaching? In fact, in the current age of accountability, play, creativity, and joy are not only absent from prominent frameworks for effective teaching, they are increasingly absent from young people’s classrooms and lives (Brown 2009, Elkind 2007, Gray 2013). With the narrowing of school curricula and increased pressures for testing has come an erosion of joy for both the young people and adults who inhabit classroom spaces.

While some days feel a bit “gloom and doom” in this work, there are other days when I run across the work of folks like Sarah Fine. If you have the time I highly recommend picking up a copy of Fine’s work: “A Slow Revolution: Toward a Theory of Intellectual Playfulness in High School Classrooms” (Harvard GSE). The woman gave me a new kind of hope! She makes a strong case for “cognitive rigor and deep engagement functioning as mutually supportive priorities…[through] a construct that marries open-ended problem solving with opportunities for risk taking and flow”. Now this isn’t the crazy kind of hippy or progressive shenanigans that flopped in mid-century American school reform efforts-this is real rigorous, deeper learning that Fine discusses in her work. She reminded me thatrigor and joy don’t have to be an either-or battle (which joy rarely wins), and in but rather they can work together in support of one another. Learning should be fun- again, not in the loosey-goosey sense- it should be challenging, enticing and engaging. Teachers should be asking big questions of their students-ones that requirecognitive demand and the need to grapple, explore and defend…Questions that allow students to make meaningful connections to the content, themselves and the world in which they exist. Students need the opportunity to create and innovate in an effort to answer questions-questions asked of them by others and questions that they develop. This is intellectual play– a vision for teaching and learning that yields joy, happiness, stimulation and purpose.

Fine argues that rethinking our schools to foster play requires a “pedagogical imagination…to illuminate and transcend the constraints of the current system”. I agree-it will require us to reimagine what teaching and learning can look like. I invite you to carve out some time to dream-What can you reimagine for yourself, your children and/or your students? What would an educational system look like that was grounded in joy and rigor? Our future deserves this, and the revolution can’t happen fast enough.

Some more nuggets on this topic if you are interested:…