On (Purposeful) Play

In the Digital Learning Collaborative, we tell teachers that year one of their two-year commitment is to play with technology. ((Year two is all about teacher research.  To be honest, I’m not sure which year is harder.))

And we mean “play” in the best sense of the word.  Fiddle.  Tinker.  Explore.  Discover.  Try.  Fail.  Reengage. ((Rinse.  Repeat.))

“Play” doesn’t sit easily with some of the teachers that I work with, nor with several the administrators that I’ve explained the project to lately.  And that’s too bad.  But I understand it. ((Even so, I worry when I have to spend so much time reminding educators that it is perfectly acceptable to be swept away by learning.))

There’s an intense pressure to perform right now, to be successful in all that we do with students.  So “playing” seems unprofessional.  Wasteful.

But it’s not.

To play on purpose is to take risks.  To challenge what you know.  To ride the edge between what is and what might be, what never was and what should’ve been.  To admit that there’s stuff worth doing that you don’t know the outcome to. To get silly. To be engaged with the world.  To dare to fiddle with the unfiddlable.

And we need teachers to be in regular, thoughtful, and purposeful, play. ((Our children, too, need play.  Regularly.))  How are you making time for play in your learning?

15 thoughts on “On (Purposeful) Play

  1. “I don’t know. I just play around with it until I get it figured out.” Those exact words came out of my mouth several times today after peer educators asked me how I learned something pertaining to technology. I was actually feeling a little frustrated with myself for not being more specific with them in how I learn…. thanks for validating my tinkering mentality!

    How do you propose to help people switch from a “Do this, then that” mentality to a “Try it, and if it doesn’t work, try something else” one? ( The latter suits the way my brain works, and I find it difficult to understand a more traditional mindset… which hampers my ability to be a resource and support at times. )

  2. I’m all for playtime, with reflection at the end.

  3. Play is absolutely an important part of learning. Always think of Papert’s Hard Fun:

    Unfortunately, I often come across anxiety and negative emotional reactions to math, science and tech. Don’t find it in language arts or other subjects. Makes me wonder how teachers’ early experiences with these subjects has influenced their feelings about them. Are we inspiring our students, bringing passion and curiosity to these subjects or making learners feel they can’t?

    Play is an important part of the learning process both to discover and to remove these emotional barriers to learning. We say that learning happens “entre les chaises” between the chairs. It is an uncomfortable time of growth and change. It is therefore important to support learners during this transition and give them opportunities to play and enjoy the process.

    Thanks for the post!

  4. Isaac Asimov makes an eloquent case for what is, essentially, play….and how giving it free reign leads to (sneaky) learning.

  5. monika hardy says:

    excellent post Bud.

    like you say – i wish we could see play as vital… i wish we didn’t talk in terms of “tech” … or “school” even. it defines learning/innovation.
    i think if we didn’t label so many things – we wouldn’t have kids thinking when they’re done with school they’re done with learning..
    and we wouldn’t have teachers/admin feeling like this is unprofessional.

    i love this: To ride the edge between what is and what might be..

  6. Amy says:

    The idea that there is no place for play in school (for students or teachers) is so disappointing. And unfortunately, many people don’t make time for play at home, either. I think lack of time, always doing and going, creates a need to have a step-by-step guide for how to do things, rather than just exploring them and seeing what comes of it. We know that everyone learns better when they’re actively engaged in a process — so why can’t we accept playing, tinkering, exploring as a critical learning activity.

    Nowhere is this more true I think than in technology, where the world is just waiting for you to jump in and see where you can go.

  7. Wesley Fryer says:

    I love your definition of purposeful play. We definitely need to give teachers permission to engage in purposeful play with media. 🙂

  8. Jason Graham says:

    Love it. Play is SO important. Its our natural way of learning. Adults forget that we play everyday when we tinker with things. Play is thinking, play is learning. Play is communication, collaborating….so if play is such a powerful learnign opportunity, why do we put our kids in front of a textbook?

  9. Tammy says:

    I agree that it’s the word “play” that seems as if time is being wasted. It’s okay for kids to play – but not adults unless you are a geeky gamer which then is seen as a time waster. In fast paced education, teachers see play as a luxury they can’t afford with all the marking, assessing, planning, box ticking …
    A couple of years ago, we delivered a session on web 2.0 tools. A requirement was that participants bring their laptops. During our session, we built in playtime so that tools could be explored and teachers could begin to see their applications for their classroom. Some of the best feedback came from that playtime because they didn’t have to find the time, it was given to them like a shiny gift.

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