Play Is Hard Work, Part 1

In a series of posts, of which this is the first, I’d like to try to write my way through my thinking about play and love and culture and how I’ve been exploring those concepts lately.  In this post, I will attempt to give some background. Future posts in this series will attempt to move from that background into how that thinking, or at least my awareness of it, is coming to life in my work and experiences.  

I had the opportunity to facilitate a workshop at this year’s ITSC event in Portland that feels to me like an important shift in my work.  The session, which I wrote a description of in a hurry several months ago, but knew could be important, was an attempt to capture some of my thinking about the use of play to build culture.  I’m calling it “Play is Hard Work.”  Here’s how I described it when I hastily wrote that description:

Play should be the cornerstone of much of what we do with technology for teaching and learning. Heck, play should comprise a considerable chunk of all of our learning time. But what does play look like in a digital environment? How can we create playful spaces around serious topics? And are play and fun the same things?
In this session, we’ll privilege habits over tools and explore play and playfulness with whatever gadgets, gizmos and whatnots we have in our classrooms.

That description was just about right – but it missed something.  I realized as I was trying to build the session that I didn’t have the language, or the framework, to talk about what I meant by “play” and “playfulness.”

The dictionary helped.  Some.  Many online dictionaries have more than twenty different definitions of play, but this one, from the Definr definition, is most certainly the closest to what I was trying to get at:


Play, then, is finding freedom in the face of constraint.  Yes.  That’s getting towards the essence of what I find important in the term1.

Those definitions helped, but they weren’t enough.  I wanted to help folks have some experiences like the ones that we are having every week in our school district IT department – but I also wanted to connect what I saw/see happening in that culture to what I want to see happening in school culture in general.  I’d like folks to be more playful in most areas of their work and not work.  I’d like to play more as a parent, as a teacher, as a person.

And I think other people should be more playful, too.

But I don’t mean that everything is “fun.”  I think assuming that play must be fun is a bad, and likely dangerous, assumption.  I think you can play with really serious ideas and concepts.  I think you can play with hurt, in an attempt to restore community.  And it took months of reading and wondering and asking for me to find the language I needed to structure the workshop – I needed Michelle to hand me a book that has been her go to for a long time on the subject2.  Thankfully, she did.

I needed some of the language of improv.  My friend Zac has been living this language for a while in his teaching and his theater work, but I didn’t see it until I really started to look.

At school, or at least at teacher school, I remember that many folks told me that it was essential to build community in my classroom.  But it was always described in such a way that the idea was that you built it, and then you moved on to whatever it was you really wanted to do with your class – teach them English, or science, or whatever.

I’m more and more certain that you’re never actually done building community.  Community and culture are not just peripheral to teaching and learning – they’re how the teaching and the learning actually happen.  Some call this rhizomatic learning, or connectivism, but whatever you call it, teaching and learning are about building community.  Community of people, of ideas, of experience and activity.  Icky-feeling places, places we’d rather not be, don’t tend to be spaces where much learning happens3.  Maslow comes to mind – we can’t learn until we’re safe.  Playful cultures have to be safe cultures.  And safe cultures can be playful ones.

And the cultures and communities that you build around classroom cultures matter, too.  That’s something that I’ve been learning as a participant observer in my school district’s IT department.  Over the last two years, we’ve been going through a major culture shift, masterfully facilitated by my boss, Joe McBreen.

He came to a place where everyone worked really hard and mostly alone.4  He recognized that we needed to know each other to be better at our work.

Through a process of huddles, short weekly meetings centered on us as people and learners together, and not on our work, and creating learning opportunities for our department to be and to learn together, he began to shape our culture into more than it was, and to create for us a need to do our work together.  We are more playful as a unit, and it’s showing it the work we are doing elsewhere.

That story, and how I tried to create something similar in a room full of strangers, and why that matters, are the subjects of future posts in this series.

  1. Oddly, other definitions contradict that one that I find so essential.  And others still add flavor to the word.  It’s amazing, or troubling, that such a small word has so much baggage. []
  2. You should buy the book.  It’s a quick read – I read it in an hour – but it gave me the language I needed to talk about play and playfulness. []
  3. Of course, I think I’ve known this for a long time, but I’m at a place where I’m seeing implications beyond classrooms, and it’s never a bad idea to try to sketch this stuff out. []
  4. I don’t say this to knock the department as it was – it was good in lots of ways.  There was room to grow, though, which is one reason I went there almost five years ago now. []

Three Things I'm Thinking About Right Now

  1.  Looking forward to attending my first #DML2012 conference.  Should be a fascinating opportunity to learn from and with folks who are thinking about learning.  Also, as I’m mostly facilitating others’ learning lately, it’s nice to attend an event in a primarily learning role1.

  2.  I’m honored to be a participant/facilitator for a session at this conference.  It’s called “Tapping into the Mutiplicity of Composition” and is a panel featuring several teachers who are making interesting things with students in the service of teaching writing and composition.  That should be a fascinating conversation. And, of course, we’ll be writing together.  Never a bad thing to do.

To support the conversation, we’ve built a couple of Pinterest boards as ways of creating galleries that show some of the texts that students are making in the panelists’ classrooms.  A second board focuses on the testimonies of the panelists as a way of providing some background that might not surface during our conversations.  The agenda for that session is taking shape and will be finally finalized soon.  At a time when so much of the “interesting learning” that is taking place for students is taking place beyond the classroom, and sometimes in spite of it, I wonder about the role of schools moving forward into new learning landscapes.  I hope that schools see the potential in other ways of learning that haven’t been privileged in our classrooms.  I wonder how to bring the fringe learning into those spaces.  I know that the has a role to play in these conversations2.

  1.  I’m struggling to write about some of my adventures in building cultures of play and love both in my school district as well as in my classroom.  I hope to get chunks of that thinking out here on the blog over the next few days.  My lens for this conference is basically “How do we promote cultures of learning and playfulness and care and concern for each other?”  Important.
  1. Which isn’t to say that I don’t approach teaching as a learning opportunity – but that sometimes the logistics of facilitation interfere with my ability to process what I’m learning as it’s happening. []
  2. Disclosure – the NWP has supported my attendance at this event.  I’m grateful for that. []