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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Anne S.'s picture

This article is much appreciated and I think I definitely needed to hear that play is so important! After a very stressful month of July I now realize that I "played" very little...I suppose I could say it was "all work and no play". In August, I will do my best to balance prepping for an upcoming school year, my homework, and "playing" with my family and friends! I easily get roped into family time so that won't be a stretch but I plan on scheduling time with my girlfriends and family friends to catch up, play games, grill out and enjoy each other's company by "playing"! Thanks for the reminder and happy summer!

Karinda R.'s picture

Thanks for the book recommendation! This blog was a great reminder about the importance of play, regardless of your age. Based on the list of play personalities, I most identify with the Storyteller and Artist/Creator. This summer I have been binge watching in the series "Breaking Bad." The artist part of me loves working on creative projects and solving puzzles. It's funny how simply working on a jig-saw puzzle while I'm drinking my coffee in the morning puts me in a better mood :) Not to mention, I also love playing board games with my family and friends. Ticket to Ride and Pandemic are some of my favorites right now. Thanks for sharing!

Lisa Salber's picture

This was such a refreshing article. Right now just walking into Walmart and seeing all the school supplies is enough to get my mind racing of all that needs to be done in this short amount of time. But the thing is, we won't get this time back. Recently, I was reflecting with my husband about all the things we used to do between playing volleyball, spending time with friends, and having more "play" in our lives. Those times came and went and now are just a memories. In a week, our baby turns one. (another time that has just flown passed us) So I am going to take more time to "play" with him, whether it is cuddling, swimming, racing, or reading books. Not only to ensure that he has play in his life, but also to ensure that I am not missing out and enjoying some play myself.

Haley Haroldson's picture

As I think about play, I am one who thrives getting out and being active. In the summer I love to walk, run, or rollerblade. In the winter, I love to be outside skating and playing pick up hockey. I often use play as my stress reliever to a hard day. As a way to calm down each night, I read a book before bed. Nothing better than taking that time to relax, a quick way to reset for the next day. I truly believe in and use my summer to reset my batteries for the upcoming school year.

Jen I's picture

This article was just what I needed! I have been struggling all summer with balancing wants and needs. I feel guilty if I stay up reading a good book(my favorite thing) or if I put aside thoughts of preparing for next year. A summer of graduate classes has added a new twist to prioritizing too. I have spent some time at our cabin pulling the kids on the tube, we have spent time together hosting relatives from out of town, and even had an impromptu dance party with our kids in the neighbors garage! I guess finding a balance helps alleviate the guilt trip and both necessary "jobs" get done! In August, I hope to practice playing more often while still getting my other jobs done. :)

Rusul Alrubail's picture
Rusul Alrubail
Edutopia Community Facilitator/ Student Voice & Literacy at The Writing Project

Hi Jen, that must be tough, finding the balance between preparing for next year, studying and enjoying your summer. One thing I found that was helpful is to think of it this way: We owe it to ourselves, but more importantly, our students, to enjoy our summer so that we can come back fresh and rejuvenated in the new year and ready to take on all the fun and challenges that come with it. When we take time off, it really helps us to be better teachers. Hope you enjoy the rest of your summer :)

RM's picture

As a kindergarten teacher I've always believed in the power of play. It's great to read about the importance of that as an adult too. I have enjoyed many impromptu dance parties with my daughter, spa sessions (a 7 year old doing my make up and hair is entertaining), and lots of play at the beach and parks this summer. Those are my favorite days. I know I'll be able to draw on those relaxing and memorable play days with my daughter to enhance my school year to come. Thanks for the great article reminding all of us to take time to play!

John Freeman's picture

Thanks for this refreshing article, Elena! I have always believed in the power of play, but sometimes it's the first thing we forget about or put off to the side. This summer has been a busy summer for me with grad school, changing grade levels, and preparing for an August wedding. With that said, I have still taken time to "play." Play has been my stress reliever and it has kept me fresh and in good spirits. I've always been a person who loves competition, activity, and play. This summer I have organized golf tournaments, days of fun yard games with friends, and time to just play with friends and family at the lake. It has made the summer my most enjoyable to date! Thanks for the nice reminder that "play" is okay!

Robyn Spaeth 2nd grade teacher's picture

I love that the article gives us permission to "play". I guess I thought of the water fight first as a kind of play, but reading on I realize that I play comes in different forms. My husband and I entertained most of June and part of July. We love that. We have a farm and host many nieces, nephews, friends, couples, and family. We love to cook things right from our garden. So that is a play time for me. I love to see the growth after hard work. I enjoy our animals through play as well. My daughter and I bid painting two long hallways at school. It was hard work. Funny though I love painting and seeing things look better. I took 2 different painting classes. I was so relaxed that my tongue slid out the side of my mouth. Play!

Meri vB's picture

I was really needing this article to remind me to take time for "me" and to play. Especially during this time of year, I tend to get so busy with work, preparing Thanksgiving meal for family, and changing all decorations for Christmas and shopping. Being reminded to take time for play, helped me to get back on track instead of feeling overwhelmed. I actually relaxed by sleeping in this morning, since I went to church last night, and waking up refreshed. I continued this "play time" by having a cup of coffee while reading a pleasure book verses a teacher education book. I consider play time as my "down time". I'm sure other colleagues can identify with the necessity of "'down time" for children as well as for adults. It is not only beneficial for the body, but also for the mind. Thank you.

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