In this episode, Chris and I talk about how we are inviting play into our lives and our children’s lives right now as we home school/crisis school our boys during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Welcome to The Professor and The Principal podcast with Katie and Chris Cunningham. We’re parents and educators. I’m a professor of education and former elementary school teacher. I’m also the author of a few professional books, most recently Start with Joy: Designing Literacy Learning for Student Happiness.
Chris: And I’ve been in middle school teacher and administrator for two decades now. We’re also the parents of two boys, ages eight and 11.
Katie: So, in this episode we’re going to talk about how this moment of the COVID-19 crisis is reminding us of the human need to play. We’re on week six of homeschooling or crisis schooling, and by far our best days are when we intentionally invite play into learning and into just being together. Chris and I will share what we’ve been doing to invite play into our lives more and the ways we’re thinking about play more broadly for when this is all over.
Yeah. I think one of the biggest benefits to this time is all of the structures around daily life and childhood have just fallen away. And this can certainly be hard and stressful, but it’s also this great chance to hit a giant reset button, particularly around play. I mean play is really a four-letter word in education and our kids are over-scheduled, over-structured, over-parented and quite frankly there’s a bit of a mental health crisis going on with anxiety and depression. I think its roots are really in the fact that our kids are starved for play and now they’ve got the time. So we wanted to focus this episode around how we might help our kids and also ourselves build back up our capacity to play.
I’ll say a big “Hallelujah” for the break right now from competitive youth sports. Our boys, really out of their own interest, are into swimming, basketball, soccer, water polo and more. And our family schedule had become a grind and it’s actually one of the first things that I noticed about the way in which our life changed in this moment was that the sports schedule didn’t dominate our lives anymore. Forget about the school schedule; there’s little joy in getting on the bus before the sun is up and out of the pool at 8:30 at night when you’re 11-years-old. And I recognized it while we were in it, but I especially realized the gift of having a break from all of that during this time. But this was our life and competitive sports are great, but they too, structure challenge for kids without kids having much agency and designing challenges for themselves. Right now our boys are in the backyard running bases and timing themselves around the neighborhood to beat their own times. They want challenge in their life and because they’re on Week Six, they’ve been able to design challenges and even physical challenges for themselves that they don’t need a coach to tell them to do it. They’re choosing to do it, which is what really makes it play
So our younger son is still working on his flips, but our older son mastered flips on our trampoline, you know, front flips, back flips. He’s working on back 360s now. He also had me drag the mattress from the trundle underneath his bed down onto the lawn because he’s determined to learn how to do a backflip on the ground, which is 100% coming from him. We were really nervous to drag the single bed mattress out on the grass and cover it with a tarp so that he can back flip on it. But this is 100% challenge-oriented mastery play. He’s actively choosing to do this and while I’m not sure that he’s so confident yet on his back flip on the ground, I mean God bless it, it’s play.
So what is play? No researcher likes to define it very much so it is hard to come up with a universal definition. Stuart Brown, the play researcher and psychiatrist, actually even avoids defining play specifically, but his book titled Play is a really great read. We recommend it and he compares play to oxygen in that it’s all around us yet goes mostly unnoticed or unappreciated until it’s missing. Chris and I actually also have some, not disagreement, but different definitions of play. When I think about play, I think about art, books, movies, music, comedy, daydreaming, experimenting, storytelling, and creating as all different kinds of play.
But I think those are expressions of play, but they’re not a definition of play because play is so personal. What could be play for one person could feel like drudgery for somebody else. The researchers Stuart Lester and Wendy Russell defined play as what children and young people do when they follow their own ideas in their own ways for their own reasons. And the only thing I’d object to about that definition is the idea that it’s solely reserved for the young, I really agree with Brian Sutton Smith who said the opposite of play isn’t work. It’s depression. In fact, some of the initial research on play and the absence of play in childhood was done by researchers like Stuart Brown who discovered that one common predictor of violence in adulthood was being deprived of the chance to play as a child. But it’s so personal—play. It’s tough to define. It’s better I think to focus on the characteristics that play seems to have. Play seems to be focused on personal choice, on control, on feelings of power, on spontaneity, on flexibility. There is agency in play. You need to be able to choose not only to play but also to choose to stop playing. One distinction that I like about play is that it focuses on creating a new reality, whereas work is adapting to a reality. Play is personal creation whereas work is practical adaptation.
So why is play important and why might we be talking about play now? One reason is the emerging evidence from the brain sciences that suggest that play plays a significant role in the development of the brain structure and chemistry. It gives rise to emotional and physical health, wellbeing, resilience, and it creates the foundation for better cognitive functioning and competence.
And it’s fun, right? Which is different from it being nice or safe, right? Play often seeks uncertainty and it tests boundaries, which is one of the reasons that it’s so good for us in a variety of levels. So while there are plenty of things that you’re likely doing with your kids and students around learning at home during this crisis, keeping a playful perspective and making room for play is critically important. At least that’s what we found at our house. A big component of play is that it needs to be self-directed, which is tricky because kids don’t necessarily get these big chunks of time where they need to figure out how to occupy themselves until now. So in the past, kids have been turning to screens for comfort or they have well-meaning adults who they rely on for suggestions and you can’t really blame them. School is really structured to teach kids that adults are the ones who know best, who know what and when and how long they should spend learning. And often the lesson that they end up figuring out for themselves is that their own interests and their own passions are of little value. So this is a terrific moment for kids to exercise that muscle a little more to be confronted with boredom and not to be saved by adults.
I’m definitely the one who sort of steps in a savior at times when they’re overly bored and looking for something to do and you’re much better Chris at getting out of the way and getting comfortable with their discomfort around not knowing how to use their time.
I will say though, Katie, you’re great at invitations. Simply putting out materials in different ways and in different places around the house. I’ve really learned from you how to do that. I think we just differ about after the invitation has been made, what comes after that? My response is boredom and I think your response is more guided instruction.
Yeah, well it’s nice we could use this podcast to compliment each other on how we’re supportive of play. You know, I am super impressed at teachers right now of course, but also about even before this crisis began, the ways that some schools were using Google’s concept of a Genius Hour or passion projects or choose your own adventure type of learning that is catching momentum, which always really excites me when schools are willing to let go of the control over curriculum and provide choice for students of all ages, not just preschoolers. I work with middle schools around how we design curriculum in a way to let go and to provide space for kids’ interests.
And those things are great, but even Genius Hour underscores how little agency kids get the majority of the time, right? For an hour, you get to choose the other six hours of the day, we, the adults are going to tell you what you should learn, how you should learn it, and how much time you’re going to spend on it.
So I mean that’s definitely something schools are going to need to confront when all of this is over. The ways in which the freedom and access that many children have, whether they like it or not, to blocks of time to essentially engage in all different kinds of play, including screen-based play, how schools respond to that and provide space for it when kids come back because there’ll be a whole lot of resistance on their hands otherwise. Also right now it’s a rare opportunity to reconsider how learning is actually designed and to break the cycle of dependency that a lot of kids have on adults in their lives, whether it’s at home or at school to determine what they should do, especially in times of boredom.
Yeah, rainy days are particularly hard for us because there’s not the outdoors and so play is really limited to indoors and it’s hard when we say that screens are not an option for our kids after they’ve spent a good bit of time on screens and I actually, I think it’s really indicative of the atrophied creative muscles potentially of our older son when really bored one day he had hopped on the iPad and was on YouTube looking up what to do when you’re bored. On the one hand this is relatively creative and probably got him some ideas. But I asked him are most of the answers watching things on YouTube? And he was like, yeah they are.
I think it was entrepreneurial of him in a way. He actually uses YouTube as a resource for How-to, and he thought, well I’ll use it to figure out how to be boredom, but screens aren’t particularly good at that. They do other things well, but not that, you know, the more time we spend in this new reality, the more that we as a family are turning toward play. We’re also turning towards thematic bundling of concepts, which is another podcast for another day. But we are striving to make learning more interactive, memorable and fun here at home. We do recognize the privilege that we have again, of both of us being home. Me in particular, having a somewhat flexible position in terms of my own work where I’m able to devote some time and energy to thinking about this. I mean it’s scattered for sure.
It’s super imperfect, but we do have the privilege of thinking about this. So the rest of this episode we’re going to share some big picture concepts about how we’re noticing our boys engaged in play in order to try to help everybody listening with the ways in which you could be agentive to create space for play at home, whether you have a lot of physical space or not, whether you have access to the outdoors or not. And you know we really believe that supporting children and students when they’re back in classrooms to tap into play as a source of joy. It can be anything goes, but you can also be intentional about the ways that we invite children to play. And a lot of my work is about, and probably also l my parenting philosophy, I guess as you described earlier, Chris, is this invitations approach, this idea that you can’t actually force anyone to learn anything, but you can invite others to learn alongside you.
And play can be a really great time in moments of stress as well for kids to work out difficult feelings. You know, therapeutically play can really be a great way for kids to help deal with impulses that are either societally unacceptable or just stressful in a low stakes, low pressured situation. I think that our younger son in particular often plays through imaginatively different scenarios that give him a locus of power and control that he can get in an imaginary environment of his own creation that he might not necessarily feel all the time. Particularly as learning becomes new and things become tougher here at home.
I will say it’s a beautiful thing that our younger son is eight years old and he still very much creates a play world in his mind. And our older son who’s now 11 had that also, but by the time he had turned eight, that sort of switch had turned off. Our younger son will say, “I’m going outside.” And he will spend hours out there with a stick waving it around as if he’s Harry Potter or another character that he’s fallen in love with and he will create a whole story world in his mind. And he doesn’t need anybody else to create it with him. It’s definitely some of the times that he’s at his happiest. And definitely he has a lot of frustrating moments though during more of our academic times in the morning. And sometimes he just needs a play break where the best option at the moment is just saying, all right, go play and let it be and then we’ll come back to something that was difficult at another time. Play can give you a chance to reset.
It doesn’t really matter what form the play takes. Regardless of that, if the play is meaningful, it’s something that the child is choosing to do. It can have enormous purpose and significance and allowing the child the time and the freedom to explore those activities kind of resets their nervous system and helps to nurse their powers of concentration and attention. So regardless of what form the play takes, it’s really all generative from a learning and a wellness perspective.
So one way you can invite children to play is definitely through imagination; imaginative play that we’ve been talking about that our youngest son is still really invested in. He also has a lot of practice around that, that we engage in as a family. It doesn’t mean that we re-enact Harry Potter scenes as a family, but that we are on the fifth book of Harry Potter as a read aloud at home. And so the read aloud is really, we’ve spoken about it before on previous episodes, but it’s an invitation to future play that you might not even be able to predict yet. But that any kind of compelling narrative that you read aloud to your kids or your students, whether it is, a chapter book or a picture book, certainly series books are really powerful because kids have a chance to fall in love with characters over time.
But that’s an invitation to imaginative play at its best. Another kind of way in which you can invite children and students to play is to play with materials. So I like just to remind them of what we have here at home. Sidewalk chalk and tape was an invitation this week to create a giant heart and a giant Easter egg on our driveway and to make them look like they were stained glass windows. I just sort of dropped some chalk on the driveway and started to form tape around a shape and our younger son wanted in. It was sort of this invitation to play together with materials a little bit. We’ve done some investigating with water and food coloring. One of my favorite little experiments actually is when you take milk and put food coloring in it along with a little bit of dish soap and you use a Q tip and it creates these like amazing spiral swirls that are so incredible, but basic materials that you have at home.
One of the things that we did this week was really borrowed from our great friend Suzanne Farrell Smith. It was a Lego challenge where I created a design out of Legos, a really small design, and then our younger son had to mimic it and he then created a design for us that was actually really difficult to replicate, but we were just playing with materials together. I had also seen this great idea online of incorporating Nerf guns into our phonics practice. Sound-letter correspondence is a really big deal both for reading and for writing. So I just put some two letter phonograms (two letters that make a single sound) on sticky notes and just hung them up on the wall and he got a Nerf gun. And when I said the sound, he had to nail it with the Nerf gun. That was probably our best phonics practice day.
One of the interesting things that ends up happening when your kids get older, they receive presents and don’t necessarily play with those presents. And you understand why if you think about it from the kids’ perspective, if they’re getting new toys at Christmas or the holiday season and then new toys at their birthday, they’re not going to emotionally invest in those toys, particularly because they know new ones are coming along. And so one of the things about the lack of novelty in the things that we have here at the house is that we’ve really circled back around to things that we had grown tired of, or toys that the kids had not been playing with or not picked up for a while. They suddenly had come back around to them because they didn’t have any other options and it was okay for them to now emotionally invest in new ways of using the same materials.
Yeah, and I even think beyond pre-packaged bought toys that one of the things that this moment has reminded us of is the importance of simplicity. So basic materials are things that they will likely always have access to. And the idea that with some food coloring and water that you can make magic happen that with chalk and tape that you can transform your driveway. I mean you’ve even been playing with the materials of flour, water and salt to make bread on a weekly basis. So this idea of playing with materials I think is a really important one for them to realize that you just need a couple of small, simple things to make something different happen that’s joyful and is play. And that I think actually they turn away from pre-packaged $40 toys a lot of the time in favor of the cardboard box that the toy came in.
There’s a lot more flexibility and spontaneity that the box can give you than the toy cause the box can be all sorts of things as we learned from Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes.
So, another category that we’ve been thinking about in terms of inviting children and students to play is that we all have the capacity to play with ideas. So one of the things I do in schools is really encourage students to ask questions “What if?” and “How might we?” “What if?” is really the question that drives any fictional story. So this is also a moment that families and teachers can ask kids what if questions. We talked at dinner last night actually about what if we did breakfast for dinner and dinner for breakfast one night this week. The question is kind of silly, but it’s rehearsing this idea that what if questions are worth asking. Our youngest son is engaged in a story swap with his great grandmother. She sent him a story actually she told him a story over the phone and he thought it was just a delightful story and she invited him to create a fun story twist for her and so he wrote and told the story of Jack and the Beanstalk where Jack was his brother and where at the end of the story he swapped the golden goose for a platypus. Our younger son and his great grandmother are engaged in this ongoing story swap where he can use the audio recording app on my phone to record his mixed up, twisted story and it’s really an asynchronous sharing, which has turned out to be a more comfortable vehicle for playing with ideas for our son than being asked to spontaneously come up with a story live or to do it on a video call. The agency of being able to press record when he’s ready to delete it if he wants to try it again are all these different ways in which he’s playing with stories right now.
So if you have more than one kid at home, you’re probably familiar with the next type of play, which is rough-and-tumble play or big body play as it’s sometimes known. It’s actually critically important for kids. A lot of times you really have to withhold your judgment about rough-and-tumble play because this sort of play, I think, and maybe I’m biased, but I think particularly for the mothers, seems like fighting. It’s boisterous, it’s rowdy. And the way that you can tell that it’s not fighting is that everybody participating in it is smiling and laughing. They join it voluntarily and they returned for this type of play. Time and time again. And this type of play is so unbelievably helpful from a social, emotional perspective, it is absolutely critical and I really think it is one of the reasons why we see incidences of bullying and mean spirited behavior in schools is because we so frequently step in as teachers and as parents to prohibit kids from testing boundaries with physicality in a way that allows them to recognize when they’ve gone over the line, when they’ve gone too far, and then to be faced with somebody that they may have hurt and to have to deal with that fact and apologize or make amends.
I’ve definitely gotten more comfortable over the years with the rough-and-tumble play between our two boys and one of the ways in which I know it’s okay is if I ask them, “Is this fun for you? Is this fun for both of you?” And they say yes. Then I have to accept that. Another way in which we’re thinking about play and categories of play are the ways in which we’re playing together versus the ways in which our kids are encouraged to play alone. The things that we’re playing together are family games, dancing in the kitchen, sharing knock-knock jokes and puns. But one of the greatest things that we’ve done is one of our closest friends in town encouraged us to engage in a game and books swap with one another. So our boys scoured their bookshelves and we looked through games that we haven’t played in awhile and we put them on our back porch and they came and pick them up and they delivered to us games that they hadn’t played in awhile that they thought we would especially like as well as some books with our kids in mind. And it’s been a great way to expand what’s available to play together. We actually have a routine now of playing together after dinner every night a different game. And we really let the kids choose. You know, sometimes we play the same game, but they’re the ones really driving, “Hey, what are we going to play together tonight?”
So another category is learning to play alone, which is something that you really have to carve out time and space for yourself in order to do this. But I think a lot of us are doing this in some form or fashion, but we’re not necessarily, if we’re adults calling it play in addition to the bread baking that Katie mentioned, which seems as though everyone is currently doing. I noted also last week that sales on Amazon of ukuleles have gone up and I’ve been using my ukulele quite a bit. Cooking is a great way for me to play. There was a week where I tried to see like what different foods can I fit inside a quessadilla and in what is probably the nerdiest sentence I’ve ever uttered in my life—I have gotten very into playing Star Wars role playing games, which is like Dungeons and Dragons, but in the Star Wars universe, which is very, very fun and 100% play.
And that’s not play for me but I was actually quite jealous yesterday of the way in which it was play for you, that you have a lot of joy in your life because of that and alongside other people in this sort of zoom averse that we’re living in. And I was actually quite jealous of like the way in which you had that in your life. You know, play for me is a little bit different. It may be quieter like needle point, thanks to my mom is a kind of play for me doing, any kind of spinning on a bike, I really like to get into my Beyonce mode. Baking for sure, especially if it’s with the kids and even going outside. We do live out in the country, in the woods, and now that the flowers are blooming, it is a kind of play for me just to walk outside and to pick some flowers and bring them in the house.
I also see teachers inviting play into this synchronous learning online environment that teachers and students find themselves in now. I’ve even seen some teachers become more playful, which is sort of a surprise, right? That the online environment is freeing some teachers to let go a little bit and be less in control because they are in less control. You cannot control the class through the screen. So we’ve seen teachers do wonderful things like inviting students to dance where there’s even less vulnerability. I mean, I don’t know that many fifth graders that are going to dance at the start of the school day in front of one another, but in the comfort of their own room and with the music playing over the screen, everybody’s doing it. You know? It’s a way to invite kids to take themselves a little bit less seriously. Certainly teachers have been meeting students’ pets and stuffed animals. They’ve been creating small group experiences online for kids to be themselves in a smaller group setting rather than the whole class over zoom and I especially see teachers doing that really well. Not necessarily even for academic purposes, but just for the point of social connection and to share the ways that kids are playing with one another.
When this is over we really hope that during this crisis children have had the freedom to invent their own play for months at a time and it’s such a necessary part of learning. Ed Hallowell’s book The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness provides five steps to help kids create and sustain lifetime joy. It really posits that the cycle of learning starts with play. I think the line between engagement and play and flow are really, really blurred ones.
So he actually posits a cycle I really believe in and emphasize in my work with schools that first comes play, then comes practice, then comes mastery, and then comes recognition and at the end of it all what all kids and really anybody on the planet wants is to be seen, known, and loved. Play is really what starts that entire cycle. But without play as a catalyst, practice (and learning anything requires practice), but practice becomes really burdensome and tiring. It becomes more and more difficult. If you don’t practice enough to reach mastery you never get to that place of recognition. But if we start with play as a way to start with joy in our classrooms, then it allows more children to want to engage in practice and to get to the place of mastery and recognition. So I do have some hopes for the ways in which this will influence schools for the future. One is my hope that schools engage in what are known as soft starts to the day that just invite a playful spirit through a morning song, a daily joke, free reading and free writing and keeping play a central part of lessons in the future by incorporating tactile materials to play with materials, to invite intentional movement into lessons, and to really keep encouraging kids to ask “What if?” and “How might we?” as a daily part of learning.
The bottom line is this, right? One of the things about having to shelter in place and work from home and be constantly in contact with your loved ones, and I say this, having just showered for the first time in at least three days, it’s getting harder and harder for me to take myself too seriously and I think that’s a wonderful thing. We could all use some levity in this moment. Life’s too short not to enjoy ourselves, so go play with your kids. Go make something. Go play an instrument. Tell a terrible joke for the sole fact that it’s a terrible joke. You’re probably still in your pajama pants even though it’s the afternoon. So what the hell go play. Thanks for listening to The Professor and The Principal podcast. Links and other show notes can be found at Katie’s website at http://www.katieegancunningham.com you can find us on Spotify, iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.
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