George Lucas Educational Foundation
Professional Learning

Summer Professional Development: Play!

June 26, 2014
Photo credit: Thinkstock

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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