What does it mean to play? If I look at my own elementary-age kids and their friends, I can determine a few characteristics. Play has no desired outcome or goal, and creative new solutions solve various problems. It can be done with others or alone. Play is often imaginative, and sometimes competitive. Play is always fun and all-engaging.
In the 21st century, as people will be required to work together, to innovate, and to create solutions to problems that haven’t even been discovered yet, play is good training.
Can play be integrated into the secondary classroom? In my experience, “play” in the classroom often takes the form of a game with rules prescribed by the teacher and with a specific outcome—reviewing terms for a test or learning vocabulary words. However, while games can be fun, they aren’t the same as play. Here are four ways to encourage play in the English language arts classroom.
Have Fun With the Dictionary
Play almost always involves aimless exploration. Kids look for something that will be fun, and that’s their entire goal, yet by doing this sort of seemingly purposeless searching, they discover a great deal about their world.
One of my favorite class days involves this same kind of exploration—but with a dictionary. It was inspired by what I observed when students were tasked with finding dictionary definitions. Inevitably they’d find random words that made them laugh for whatever reason and share them with their neighbors, exploring language with no end goal besides fun. So I had students open up to any random page, find words they liked, and turn them into poems. By taking time to just explore, students learn that language is fun, inspiring, and often really weird.
Try Writing Figurative Language
When my kids play, they bring together random things to create something new. A handful of Legos and the stuffing from an old pillow become a home for an imaginary cat. Using two things that are not usually seen together to create something else is a wonderful component of play.
I get my high school students to explore this kind of juxtaposition by writing metaphors and similes. If they see figurative language only as something to identify, label, and analyze, students don’t really see how much fun it is. But bringing together two different concepts or ideas to make something new is lots of fun. My favorite trick is to choose something abstract, like love or friendship, and then compare it to something in the room, like a cracked clock that is five minutes behind, and then make that comparison work. It’s challenging, engaging, imaginative, and fun, and there really isn’t a goal beyond exploration.
Cross Things Out
Recently, my children have been obsessed with Legos. We have an entire Lego village on the floor of our living room, and their friends have built their own houses in the village. But here’s the thing with Legos: The dog or the cat or the broom will inevitably destroy any creations. Breaking things and starting again from scratch is a key element of play.
Similarly, I get my students to play with language by crossing things out. I might instruct them to write without stopping for five minutes and then cross out everything but the last word on the page and start from there. Or I might tell them to write three lines of prose and cross out everything but five words and make them into a poem. That our writing isn’t necessarily precious, that innovation often involves destruction, and that revision is a key element of creativity are all important lessons students learn when they play with destroying what they’ve made. The laughter I hear when I tell them to cross out what they’ve written lets me know they’re being pushed and are having fun.
Write a Story
When my children play with friends, they create lots of stories. Sometimes their stories involve spying or baby kittens or pirates or all of the above.
High school students don’t get many opportunities to create stories, but creative writing can be a great way to play. A teacher’s goals in assigning an essay are usually for students to analyze sources, synthesize information, or come up with their own ideas about a topic. All of that can be done just as easily with a creative writing assignment. I’ve written more about my five favorite meaningful creative writing assignments. By getting students to play with creative writing, teachers empower them with the creativity to take on new challenges.
Of course, one of the biggest benefits to incorporating play into my classroom is that I get to play too. I laugh out loud when I find bizarre words in the dictionary, and I’m super proud of the metaphors I create each year. George Bernard Shaw said, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” I know that as a teacher, I need to stay young.