Life Must Be Lived as Play

“Will you play with me?” It’s an age-old question that our eleven-year-old son will still ask us when he wants to shoot hoops in the driveway or play ball tag in the basement. My husband and I know that, at some point, our tween will stop asking. We hold on to these moments and hope they continue for as long as possible. “Will you play with me?” is an invitation with no guarantee of being accepted and we feel grateful to be asked. I try to remind myself that the dishes or emails can wait and that I may not hear this question very often in the coming years. 

As adolescence starts to take hold in our house, it’s prompted me to wonder when we stop asking others to play and why that is. Psychiatrist Stuart Browne writes in his book Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul that play is like oxygen, “It’s all around us, yet goes mostly unnoticed or unappreciated until it is missing.” 

Thanks to early childhood researchers and advocates from Fred Rogers to McArthur Fellowship recipient Vivian Gussin Paley, we know that the “work” of childhood is play. Through play children build their imaginations, learn how to problem-solve, and navigate social networks. This doesn’t change as we get older. Throughout our lives, it is through play that we learn how to move beyond frustration and into innovation. Play is more than fun. When we are engaged in play, we learn to express our feelings, opinions, ideas, and needs. Above all, play creates joy, which is its own best reward. 

At home and at school, we can support the children in our lives by creating invitations to play. Based on Brené Brown’s work in The Power of Vulnerability: Teachings on Authenticity, Connection, and Courage, we asked our sons this weekend about when they feel like they’re engaged in play. Specifically, we asked: What do you love to do so much that you lose track of time, you can be goofy, and you don’t want it to end? 

We made a family list:

Wandering the stacks at the library
Dungeons and Dragons
Board and card games
Weekend cooking and baking
Reading fiction and memoirs
Wandering the local market
Board and card games
Ball tag
Jumping on a trampoline
Playing with Sandy (our puppy)
Reading a good book

Reading in bed or on the couch
Board and card games
Playing with Sandy
Drawing in a little notebook

We talked about why these things feel like play and we made a family commitment to try to bring more play into our lives by carving out time together to do the things we love.

In the classrooms, I partner with, I work with teachers to think about the times when learning feels playful. It’s often when students are connecting with one another or they are laughing together or discovering something new. 

During a unit planning day with sixth grade teachers this week, we worked on making learning engagements more joyful, memorable, and playful. The teachers are taking their students on a field trip to a science museum as part of the unit. They initially planned to have students explore the museum website to preview what they will experience. It seemed purposeful, but not particularly playful. I suggested that, instead, they could print photos of images from the museum website, put them on large pieces of chart paper, and have students write and draw in small groups what they think they will see and what the images makes them wonder. Students could circulate around the room to the different images creating “graffitti boards” that they could then revisit after the trip. Purposeful, joyful, and playful. 

Clicking around the website wasn’t likely to evoke much wondering or feelings of play, but gathering together with classmates in what I call “heads in a huddle” to share their thinking about a compelling image would feel like a form of play. Students would likely lose track of time, be a little goofy, anad wish that it could last longer. All signs that joyful learning is occurring. 

Plato is said to have stated, Life must be lived as play. I agree. 

Here are some additional ways to make play a pillar for starting with joy in your home and classroom: 

At Home:

  • Invite children to play with materials by making available markers, crayons, scissors, paint, watercolors, oil pastels and paper. 
  • Make a family list by asking each other: What do you love to do so much that you lose track of time, you can be goofy, and you don’t want it to end?
  • Play together with board games, card games, dice games, and role playing games (some of our favorites are Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, 30 second mysteries, and Exploding Kittens)
  • Invent family games (our family favorite is ball tag–pretty much exactly as it sounds but using a giant yoga ball)
  • Play with books through family read-alouds by making your voice match the characters’ voices. Our recent favorite are the Harry Potter books illustrated by Jim Kay. Another family favorite has been and always will be Calvin and Hobbes.
  • Listen when children ask us “Will you play with me?” and find a way to say “YES”
  • Model the ways you find play in your own life. 

At School:

  • Invite students to play with materials as part of the writing process through mixed media illustrations by making available markers, crayons, scissors, paint, watercolors, oil pastels and various paper. Look to picture books for inspiration especially wordless picture books and Caldecott award-winners.
  • Make a class list of favorite ways to play by asking: What do you love to do so much that you lose track of time, you can be goofy, and you don’t want it to end?
  • Consider ways to foster student choice and movement while meeting the same lesson objectives
  • Reframe independent reading as imaginative play–after all, that’s what fiction reading really is
  • Incorporate daily “quick writes” to help students see writing as a playful process through short bursts of what Paula Borque calls “thinking and inking”. See Paula Borque’s Spark: Quickwrites to Kindle Hearts and Minds in Elementary Classrooms for more ideas. 
  • Support students to play with ideas by creating a culture of experimentation 
  • Notice times when students are implicitly saying “Will you play with me?” Confer with students one-on-one to honor those moments when students need us as academic play partners to discuss their innovative ideas and interesting noticings. 
  • Finally, model the ways you are playful in your own life. Take silly class photos. Play games with students at recess. Invite laughter. Compliment the ways you see students inventing their own ways to play. 
playing with watercolors to make joy bookmarks

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