Don't Forget to Play! | Edutopia
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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Play has earned some inaccurate baggage of connotations over the years. When we talk about playing in education or play time, many would push back that it is not appropriate to play in classroom, or that play is not good learning. This could not be farther from the truth. I think Fred Rogers put it best:

Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.

Remember when you were a kid and were always playing? You often made mistakes, but those mistakes never got in the way of you trying again, trying something new, and ultimately coming to a place of success. Wouldn't it be great if we got just a little more of that into the classroom?

Why Play?

Play does so many positive things for us in terms of learning. When we play:

  • We build skills like confidence
  • We strengthen relations with others
  • We develop creative skills
  • We problem solve and tinker
  • We learn to be flexible

People who play learn to question something, predict an outcome, and evaluate their predictions through the process of play. When we play, we persist through challenges -- and we even enjoy it. Play builds excellent social and emotional skills and helps create a culture where those skills are valued at school. Probably one of the most important aspects of play is the way it treats failure and mistakes as non-punitive, ensuring that we have opportunities to learn from whatever went wrong. Yes, play makes failure fun. I love the use of the word "tinker" to describe play. It's serious work, but it's also fun work. Play values the process of learning as well and the product.

Elements of Play

The Strong, an organization devoted to the study and exploration of play, has broken down the elements of play. They use this great equation:

Play = Anticipation + Surprise + Pleasure + Understanding + Strength + Poise

Their Elements of Play graphic breaks down this equation in emotions. For example, anticipation is associated with interest, readiness and ultimately wonderment. Understanding is associated with empathy, skill and ultimately mastery. When I look at these emotions and descriptors, I get excited about creating them in my classroom. I want to work in a room where we create things like joy, ingenuity, awakening and even balance. I'd love to foster these elements of play by actually creating time to play.

Ideas for You

The Museum of Play is just one organization that champions the cause for play. They offer many resources including studies, activities and also great quotes about play. In addition, as you play with students, you can teach and assess creativity. As articulated in an earlier blog on creativity, it is important to break down what creativity means for students, encourage play, and set creativity goals as they play over and over again. You can develop Makerspaces in your schools and communities to foster tinkering and play in all kinds of contexts. Use game-based learning as a model, and create either "gamified" units or use games as part of the instruction. There are so many possibilities for embedding play in your everyday instruction. From these possibilities you can help reframe failure. It can be become not only non-punitive, but also a learning opportunity. More importantly, the forgiving context of play can make failure fun!

As you head back to school, don't forget to carve time out for playing with kids. Let's honor the reality that all of our students are kids, and because of that they need time to play. Although play may look different from 1st grade to 12th grade, all kids want to play, and we can use play to motivate students toward being creative, toward collaborating and tinkering in our classrooms, toward creating high-quality work and assessments. Also, don't forget to play as an educator -- you need it, too! Like I say to my fellow educators and students, "Let's have some fun and fail forward!"

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Todd Sentell's picture
Todd Sentell
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"


"Listen, Lewis," I said, "to ____ with it. Let's go back and play golf."

--Deliverance, by James Dickey

The ancient history of Georgia was scrutinized today in first person. I played in the school's annual golf tournament fund raiser with some particular Georgians: my father, my Uncle Jinks, and my Great Uncle Modean whose combined ages are a real big number.

We played at a real fancy private golf club and I'm pleased to report my ancestors were not wearing coach's shorts and wife beaters. They looked real nice, but every golf garment they were wearing had at least ninety-two logos on it representing some golf company or golf product or golf tournament or golf charity event or national golf association. Then there were the mustard stains and ear hair scenarios.

After eating chicken biscuits with extra mustard, we went over to the practice putting green where there was a putting contest. It made sense that the woman running the putting contest is also the lady up the hill in the school's main office who also tests students and prospective students. She's what's called a psychometrist. She was standing there with a clipboard. I asked her if this is where you come to embarrass yourself.

I bumped into the school's athletic director. He was playing in the golf tournament, too. I said a bad day on the golf course is better than a good day at work. He laughed real loud.

I told him that wasn't original material, and he said it doesn't matter because it's true. The school's headmaster was standing right behind him.

On one hole, Great Uncle Modean hit a tee shot where he swung very furiously and imparted a tremendous amount of the undesirable kind of spin on the ball, and the ball, after being struck in this manner, instantly dug a small ditch in the tee box and then the ball bounded down the front of the tee box and into some tall wet grass. After this undesireable result, Great Uncle Modean said he wasn't going to be any good for the rest of the day. Then he thumped toward his golf cart and I believe he said a cuss word. He didn't even pick up his tee and he's usually real Irish. This was just the seventh hole we played. There were eleven more holes to go. Golf sure is a game that examines your emotions.

On another hole, Uncle Jinks putted his golf ball and it didn't travel near the cup one bit.

Great Uncle Modean asked Uncle Jinks if he had shoved it.

Uncle Jinks said he shoved it.

These are the conversations of men who golf with each other have with each other. If any women wonder what men who golf with each other do for eight hours on the golf course then this is pretty much it.

On another hole, Great Uncle Modean finally hit a nice shot, which seemed to uplift him. He handed out cigars.

On another hole, Uncle Jinks swung his club in such a way where he ended up hitting his ball in another such way where he said a moment later that he might really have a mental problem when it comes to hitting delicate flop shots.

I was standing there watching and I told Uncle Jinks that after watching the situation unfold that I firmly believed he did indeed have a mental problem when it comes to hitting delicate flop shots, and that the successful hitting of delicate flop shots, by the way, could be achieved by practicing the shot in your free time at the two nice country clubs you belong to in your retirement.

Uncle Jinks said he practiced flop shots all the time.

That was another type of conversation men who golf with each other have with each other.

On another hole, we rode up to a tee box and had to wait on the group in front of us to tee off. I was sitting in my golf cart behind my father and Great Uncle Modean. I heard Great Uncle Modean ask my father, loudly, because my father is a bit hard of hearing ... HOW'S YER MEM-REE DOIN?

Well, welcome to the modern times of old men. I walked up there and inserted myself into their conversation and found out that Great Uncle Modean said he was talking about computers. The other day he had to put his in the repair shop, he said, and he gets worried about other people's computers now in his old age.

On the last hole, it started to rain so we putted our golf balls fairly near the cup real quick and went inside the fancy clubhouse and grabbed some food off of a buffet and sat down and talked to each other with food in our mouths.

Men chasing little plastic balls across fields of green grass in electric-powered buggies with balloon tires.

Riveting, isn't it?

Dell's picture

I appreciate the use of game-based learning in my kids schools. My 5th grader is a visual learner. It seems that the incorporation of games and technology is the winning combination for her success in school. She struggles in math and I can't explain how essential computer generated games and board games are to her education.

I am hoping that our school district in the future is able to incorporate laptops or ipads daily.

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