“Will you play with me?” It’s a timeless question that some children ask out loud directing their hopes for play at loved ones and even at those they’ve just met. It’s also a question often unstated, particularly as children grow older and as their awareness of the vulnerability of a possible rejection grows. Almost nothing hurts more than the rejection of play or the anticipation of play that is then unrealized.
In my experience, by the time many students reach fifth grade they’ve learned that play is so rarely a part of learning at school anymore that they stop looking forward to learning at all. But this moment of global crisis is an opportunity to reset what learning can look like when we return to classrooms. To rekindle what’s worth learning. To invite play. To bring more joy.
At the heart of any learning situation at any age is the heartfelt desire to play. In his book The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness, Dr. Ned Hallowell proposes that when we have learning experiences that start with play, we create a cycle of happiness that can sustain us over and over again in life. Whenever I need to remind myself of what’s most important for learning and happiness, I ask myself “Where is the play?”
Here’s how the cycle works: When learning starts with play, it gives us a reason to practice. Learning anything is hard and usually requires repeated, intentional practice. When we practice enough, we reach a stage of mastery where we use less mental energy to continue growing in our knowledge and skills. When we reach a stage of mastery, other people recognize us for our efforts and success.
Here is essentially what we’re telling ourselves when this cycle is in place.
Play is inherently joyful–fun, even. The experience makes us want to keep trying. We lose track of time while doing it, don’t want it to end, and choose to practice. We’re able to recognize our own success. Finally, we feel seen, known, and loved by others. Without the first step, the cycle falls apart.
But the reverse is also true. When learning is initiated with tasks less play-oriented, practice becomes rote and boring and is then abandoned. If we give up on the “invisible practice” needed for automaticity to solidify, we never get to a place of mastery and ease. Or we get there through tears, arguments, and maybe some heated book throwing and pencil breaking. When we miss the opportunity for mastery of a new skill, it’s pretty unlikely that someone else will recognize us for our efforts or success. Rather, we will be recognized for the negative behavior that stemmed from a lack of practice and a lack of mastery ala No, David!
In this moment of learning from home, teachers and families have an opportunity to invite different kinds of play into learning that are incredibly difficult in today’s typical classrooms like:
- using nerf guns to practice phonics and grammar skills
- going on an indoor/outdoor scavenger hunt
- creating reading forts with boxes, blankets, and pillows
- using food to enhance learning like making structures with sugar cubes and learning the parts of a paragraph with Oreo cookies
- telling or creating stories with toilet humor ala Captain Underpants
- giving kids time and space to figure out how to play alone
But if all learning is strengthened by starting with play, what does that mean when we are back in classrooms? We know from research on the childhood roots of adult happiness that the primary components of a happy life are positive feelings, flow and fulfillment, emotional intelligence, and strong social bonds–all of which are enhanced through learning that starts with play.
Imagine a nonfiction unit of study. Rather than lead with the skills of identifying the main idea and key details, what if learning started instead with enticing photographs and the challenge to generate 20 questions about the image with a partner? Or a scavenger hunt for text features across different texts? Or the opportunity to build something from loose parts that will connect to a shared topic? Learning how to identify the main idea and key details in a nonfiction text is strengthened if we start with play first.
Or take a narrative writing unit. Rather than starting with a story map graphic organizer, what if you started with comic strips like Calvin and Hobbes to laugh out loud while learning about how characters often land in a sticky predicament? Or with costume pieces and small props? Or with stick figure puppets? Or with lines cut up from stories that the class has to put back together in order? Or with wordless picture books for students to add descriptive sentences, dialogue, and internal thinking? Students will understand and remember how stories work and what makes a great story if we start with play first.
When we return to classrooms, children will expect and need learning that is joyful and gives them a sense of purpose and recognition. It will require letting go and giving children, and ourselves, the freedom to make decisions and try something new.
If you want to read more about play, here I share some more ideas about how to invite play into learning and here my husband and I explore what play looks like in middle school. We also talk about play in Episode 5 of The Professor and the Principal podcast.
Have you played today?