Solving the "Play" Problem

As I write this, I’m sitting on a plane traveling to Phoenix, Arizona for one of the National Science Teachers Association’s regional conferences.  The flight’s a fairly long one from Newark, New Jersey, so between almost completing today’s Times crossword puzzle (anyone know a four letter word for “jazz line”?) and reading about some great “geek science” opportunities in this month’s Discover magazine, I’ve had quite a lot of time to reflect on an important conversation I had earlier this week. 

 

One of my roles as a regional science coordinator has me working with classroom teachers on any myriad of science education initiatives they choose to explore.  As I was planning an inquiry-based “deep observation” experience with a teacher, we got into talking about the topic of “play.”  This teacher mentioned the challenge that many of his students have with seeing more than the forest when they look at a stand of trees.  To quite a number of his students today, a plant is a plant is a plant.  Why would they need to know any more about it?

 

This view is a troubling one, and is a reflection of the constantly “on” lifestyle our students (and many of us) lead.  Very few of our students can remember a time where their mother or father told them to, “Get out of the house and play.”  Why?   Because hyper-scheduling has made any unstructured play a near impossibility.  Whether this is due to countless after-school activities or more time spent on homework, the end result is a crop of young people who don’t have the time to truly observe the world around them.  This is an annoyance for us as educators, but may prove to be a bigger concern if the trend continues.  True innovation requires deep thinking, and deep thinking can only happen when one has truly taken the time to observe, consider, and learn from all that is encountered.  To truly be creative, we need to have the opportunity to think outside the box, and that requires time and exposure to unique and new experiences (as opposed to the same old routines).  In an article by Tom Kelley and David Kelley in the Harvard Business Review, the need to avoid a “creativity crisis” is a main focus.  The authors emphasize that we shouldn’t stifle the innovative and creative impulses that all children are born with.  They write that education must encourage students to embrace “messiness,” the judgment of others, and taking the first, often frightening, step to exploring something a little different.

 

As educators, we have to be the guides that lead students along this slightly less-beaten path.  Here are a few tips for helping your students become reacquainted with play, creativity, and innovation:

  • Provide time to be one with the world.  Too much education takes place indoors.  For students who aren’t involved in outdoor sports, their only outdoor time in a given day may be running from the front door to catch the bus.  That isn’t good, and it doesn’t provide time for students to truly “see” a different world then they are used to.  Contrary to what some might believe, any class can be held outdoors.  That doesn’t mean the focus of a lesson needs to be on studying the world outside, but a Shakespearean reading on school grounds, a study of bus idling procedures, and/or a playing field area calculation all provide students with the chance to observe more than a classroom.

 

  • Promote percolation.  Instead of letting the class end with a bell (or the transition to lunch or recess), build in five or ten minutes for students to reflect.  For many students, reflection doesn’t just happen, and strategies (such as creating a “Questions I have. . .” chart, or an “If it were up to me. . .” learning progression statement) should be incorporated to help students begin to become more active thinkers.  By making thinking time a necessary part of your work with students, you’ll encourage them to reflect regularly and often.

 

  • Push for unstructured “play.”  The teacher I was working with earlier this week told me about a recent time that he was taking a bunch of students outside for recess.  Unfortunately for students, the playground balls that were usually available for recess could not be used.  Students stood around for a minute or so, and then asked to return inside.  Very few seemed to even realize that there was much more to do outside than play an organized game of football or soccer.  In some respects, many of our students today need to be “forced” to play in an unstructured-environment, if for no other reason than to learn what it means to just be a “kid.”

 

It worries me that my daughter, who will be three in a few months, and who engages in imaginative play at the drop of a hat, could lose that important quality, and partly because of the design and structure of our educational system.  I want her to be a truly innovative leader who thinks critically and isn’t afraid to imagine.  I believe we want that for each and every student we encounter.  We can’t afford to experience a further “creativity crisis,” and it should never be a problem for students to play.

 

Works Cited:

 

Kelley, David and Tom Kelley. (2012).  Reclaim Your Creative Confidence.  Harvard Business Review90 (12), 115 – 118.

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