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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Many educators, myself included, look forward to time during the summer to improve our craft and learn new practices. I was drawn to teaching in part because of my insatiable desire to learn and summers have often included activities like participating in a two week PD on teaching writing and another week on integrating arts and then a self-directed few weeks of deepening my knowledge of a period in history so that I could create new curriculum. While students definitely benefit when teachers engage in such learning, I want to suggest that you consider a different kind of PD for yourself this summer -- I want to encourage you to engage in what I call "Play PD."

Lessons from Stuart Brown

I've been doing a lot of reading and thinking about how we cultivate emotional resilience in ourselves and in others. As part of this learning, I read a book by Stuart Brown called Play in which play is first defined as an activity with "apparent purposeless" as well as something that's fun and in which we loose ourselves. But there's a paradox because as Brown offers the scientific research on play, we learn that play is also a way that we bond with others, become more innovative, refine certain skills, and increase our happiness. Play might also have an evolutionary survival value. It helps sculpt our brains to help us learn and make us more resilient. Brown, who has been studying play for decades, has even found strong evidence correlating a lack of play as a child with violent, homicidal behaviors in adults.

By the middle of the book, I was convinced that everyone needs to play more. I was especially taken aback by this statement: "When we stop playing, we stop developing, and when that happens, the laws of entropy take over -- things fall apart...When we stop playing, we start dying."

At this point, I put down my book and went outside to play with my ten-year old son. It was a beautiful, hot Sunday afternoon and I suggested that we have a water fight and after a moment in which I'm sure my son wondered what kind of alien force had taken over his mother (this was unusual behavior for me), he eagerly filled up the toys and explained the rules. And over the following hour as we ran around squirting each other, there were some wonderful moments when I lost track of time and reveled in the purposeless of the activity (and there were also a few when I intellectually analyzed what we were doing, I'll admit). After we were soaked and tired, we found a shady spot and drank lemonade and I read The Little Prince aloud to him. I felt very happy and relaxed by evening.

My play skills have become rusty in the last few years (Stuart Brown describes how this can happen in the lives of the busy middle-aged). I also learned from Play that there is such a thing as a "play deficit" that's been measured in a laboratory, much like the well-known "sleep deficit." I admit it: I have a play deficit and I intend to do something about it this summer.

Play Personalities

Brown identifies eight different "play personalities" and says that most of us are a mix of these categories. He suggests that by identifying your dominant type can help you achieve greater awareness and greater play in life. I also appreciate that these categories help me think about what play is and different activities that I might engage in.

The categories are: The Joker, the Kinesthete, the Explorer, the Competitor, the Director, the Collector, the Artist/Creator, and the Storyteller. While many of these types are fairly obvious, some of the definitions surprised me. For example, exploring can by physical -- going to new places, and it can be emotional -- searching for a new feeling or deepening the familiar, and it can be mental -- researching a new subject or discovering new ideas. This resonated with my feelings about what I love to do as play; I love traveling abroad, and I also love to get lost in a new intellectual train of thinking. I had never thought of my travels through Wikipedia as play before, but perhaps they are. I also appreciated the description of the Storyteller.

I knew that this described me, but Brown describes the Storytellers as those whose greatest joy is reading novels or getting lost in movies, in addition to creating them. I can easily settle down to a high quality series TV show and watch all 13 episodes without moving (as I'm tempted to do with the latest Netflix season of Orange is the New Black). I had never thought of this compulsion as a play tendency.

There are many ways of playing, as you can see. Playing can be a solitary activity or one in which we engage with others. It can be cooking or collecting sea glass or gardening or dancing or playing board games or any activity in which we lose ourselves. Brown suggests that we recall what we loved doing as a child.

How Can You Play This Summer?

I know there's a contradiction in what I'm suggesting in this blog -- that you think about play as a summer PD activity -- because play is defined by its purposelessness, not as "professional development." But I'm going to suggest it anyway especially for those of us who can't quite let go of the need to personally or professionally develop (I'm there too) and who need a way to think about play that feels purposeful. I'm just going to try incorporating play and see what happens.

So what were you able to do as a child for hours on end? What are some things you love doing now, that you could do for hours? If you have a family and are wondering how you might carve out time for your play activities, you can also try doing this together and creating a venn diagram of what you each love to do for play.

If you'd like a suggestion, start with reading Play. On the topic of creativity, I love Austin Kleon's Steal Like an Artist. There are so many ways we can play -- both organized and unorganized, structured and unstructured. I've enrolled in an online photo course which promises to be really fun. Photography is something I always enjoy. Check it out and if by chance you decide to do it, let me know.

Please share your ideas for summer play in the comments section below.

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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"


I've gone to the local mom and pop vitamin store a couple of times this summer with a teacher's interest in good health.

The local vitamin store is run by the mom and a Chihuahua. The woman is about two feet tall, with wild unshampooed hair, and she sits on a couch in the sun by the front door and the Chihuahua sits on the couch next to her and watches her while she pecks around on her laptop computer.

I always figure she's researching vitamins and minerals and herbs and extracts and lotions and creams and juices and powders and undelicious-tasting bowel expulsion tinctures because every time she asks me what's wrong with me I tell her and then she immediately marches me over to exactly what I need to cure what's wrong with me. The Chihuahua always likes to come with us. The floor of the vitamin store is made of hardwood and his little toenails click on the floor as he assists.

The first time I went in there this summer I told her what was wrong and then she asked if something personal on my body itched. I am not going to say anything more on all that.

The second time I went in there this summer she asked me what was wrong with me this time and I told her and then she said stick your tongue out.

I stuck my tongue out as far as it would go. And then I noticed she was standing on her tip-toes so she could get a better look, so I leaned my head down so she could see my tongue better.

She reached up there with a finger, and without touching my tongue, which would have been okay with me because she helped that itch go away, she started pointing at some areas of my tongue and made some medicinal-related comments about what she saw on the certain areas of my tongue. Then she asked me when was the last time I had brushed my tongue real good.

I said fifteen minutes ago.


Todd's teaching memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave," at real sharp turns hilarious and heartbreaking, will be published this fall by Stairway Press.

Karla Santoro's picture
Karla Santoro
5th grade teacher from Canandaigua, NY

I've always been pretty good at play. I play in my quilting studio and in the barn with my horses. And now that I'm a grandma I play a LOT with my one year old Jessie. I gave her a belly laugh today as I attempted to count fish in a fish tank and asked them to hold still so I could count better. She thinks I'm hysterical. :-) Loved this article and I'll read the book!

Gregory Davis's picture
Gregory Davis
Elementary Physical Education Instructor, Technology Liaison

Loved your article on Playing as a PD. I am a Elementary PE Instructor (40 years) and I usually introduce myself when I do workshops as a "Playologist" (one who can teach mainline academics through the medium of play). My favorite lessons are those lessons on street games (games that we use to play when we lived in neighborhoods; no money, great imaginations and anything we picked up in the street, yard or in/near the trash can was gold.
Spent time as a athletic director in summer camp for 20 years, the lower range of the Adirondack Mountains was an amazing and outstanding playground for me.
I am an avid photographer and gardener (all part of my play character). My wife gets on my case from time to time, because I spend most of the day in the "play mode". I facilitate several after school programs during the school year chess (USCF Certified Coach), robotics, rocketry. My own children still think and am crazy and always look at me hoping I will 'mature', Yeah right!

So glad to see/hear someone else looking for opportunities to 'play' and developing that play as a life time skill. It is hard persuading adults that we can play until death us do part.

Tag, you're it!! :)


Mark Collard's picture
Mark Collard
Experiential Trainer, author & keynote speaker. Founder & director of playmeo

Thank Elena. I'm a specialist train-the-trainer, and my methodology embraces the full potential of play to help teachers and other professional educators to deliver remarkably fun programs which make a powerful difference in the lives and performances of their groups. I've read 'Play' and as Dr Brown says, play is fun. It is my most potent tool to not only engage my groups, but to help them learn. Indeed, as the good Dr would agree, if you're not having fun, you're not learning. That's right - if you're not having fun, you're not learning. I know this goes against all conventional wisdom, but compare the wisdom gained in an hour of play with that in a classroom seated behind a desk. It's not even a competition. I'll add this post to my playmeo.com blog - thnaks :-)

Kelsey Morken's picture

Loved reading this article! As part of my master's program summer requirements we are "required" to have a summer adventure. How often does your facilitator ask you to do something adventurous as an assignment??
My summer adventure is of the kinesthetic nature. One of my master's classmates, myself and 10 others are going to participate in The Great River Ragnar Relay Race in August. It is an overnight relay with 12 runners taking turns to run a total of about 200 miles. Some might not look at that as play but I am really excited for the adventure and continuing the training needed to complete it before we head back to school at the end of August.

Grant Klennert's picture

Biggest take away is it is important to recharge your batteries. Kelsey and I are in the same grad class and have been challenged to do something adventurous as an assignment for our Masters program. First things first, I played with my daughter in her sandbox and pool for over an hour last night. She is 15 months old and this is our first summer in which we are up and active. I forgot how much fun building a sandcastle can be!

For my adventure I have been officiating high school basketball for 5 years. I want to go to the next level so this past week I went to my very first officiating camp and learned quite a bit. It is interesting to get critiqued on working a basketball game, and yes I do have some improvements to make. I know this is definitely not play, but I do consider this a great hobby of mine. It is challenging and enjoying to watch and learn from other officials and to see how much room for improvement I have.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

I love that your program requires that! Where are you doing your grad work, if you don't mind me asking?

Seth Haun's picture

This is a good post. I'm very tempted to read the book now. After the reading, I took my dogs for a long hike. I have been busy with work lately and forgotten how much I enjoy spending time with my dogs in the woods.

Thank you for reminding me to find time to enjoy myself!

Rebecca Hines's picture

I never thought of play as having categories. When I think of "adventure" I would categorize myself as an explorer. I love to travel! I've traveled for pure leisure (especially in the winter when I just need some warmth) but for the most part I travel for a purpose. I've been abroad and half way around the world to Africa, but this summer I really didn't make many plans for traveling. I thought I'd "take a break" and just relax. Well, needless to say I've been itching to get somewhere, so in two days my husband and I have decided to jump in the car and head to South Dakota! What inspired this? Well, preparing a social studies unit this summer was a factor and the fact that I've been half way around the world but never to South Dakota! So I'm super excited to play (and explore and learn) and can't wait!

Andrew Walden's picture

When it comes to play I think I am the Competitor. I coach multiple teams during the school year and the enjoyment that comes with that seems like play to me. I also enjoy diving into a good TV series. I recently binge watched House of Cards on Netflix. I guess I"ll have to tell my wife that I'm not watching TV, I'm playing. Thanks for the great read.

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