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 term ((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.)).

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 subject ((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.)).  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 happens ((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.)).  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. ((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.))  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.

6 thoughts on “Play Is Hard Work, Part 1

  1. briancsmith says:

    Bud, you have a knack for really getting at the heart of topics. I’m really glad you’re thinking, exploring and writing about play. Play is something I’ve been very interested and I still feel that I’m just exploring what it means in the context of learning and, especially school.

    Your statement about community building is an important one. It helps me to think of community as relationships. We are constantly building and maintaining relationships. Classroom relationships can and should be playful and being so adds to the learning community significantly for not only children, but the adults as well. I’m looking forward to reading more of your experiences and thoughts around this near and dear subject.

  2. The more I read about play in education, the more I am convinced this is the way we should be moving. And you are right…play is (ironically) hard work. I wrote about my experience playing in the classroom ( and it is definitely something I need and want to explore more. Thanks for your thoughts and all the resources.
    Rebekah (@ndbekah)

  3. I am so conflicted. My students want to play all the time and play for them in the 6th and 8th grades often looks like playing Temple Run, Bubble Ball, or other games or watch YouTube videos on our class iPads. Or they will hang out and good off or socialize at the expense of learning Science. I’m not sure of your definition of play includes that. I can’t seem to convince my students that the a science we’re doing can be fun. I joke around with and laugh with my students in every class, all day, every day. That is how I cope with the stress of battling off task behaviors every single day.

    So I’m curious and very open to ideas for incorporating play AND having kids learn Science. I want to be able to face my school board, my principal, my parents and my kids and justify what they are doing in my room every day. Right now I tell kids that I can’t tell their parents that I am in favor or that I support them playing games and socializing every day at the expense of doing their work. Even if I call their work play they will still prefer temple run over punnett squares (even if it’s SpongeBob genetics!).

  4. I really enjoyed this post and look forward to more. I appreciate your definition of “play” and the differentiation between “play” and “fun” which is an important distinction to make. The notion of play in classrooms, office spaces and meeting rooms is something that (if implemented correctly) could be integral to improving learning and productivity as it allows people space to step out of their own comfort zones and begin to foster a more creative sense of community. As I get ready to embark on a new career path, this notion of “play” is one I am going to take with me.

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