When Do We Play?

PlayPlay is important.  Why else would it be so consistent across the human and animal worlds? When we had kittens in our house, the two of them found the world a continual source of adventure. They stalked one another with delight, dove into our shoes just for the sake of popping back out, and chased their tails like dervishes. It was particularly interesting to watch because for the first six months we had them, both kittens were quite seriously ill. Still, they played.

In his book, Play, Stuart Brown quotes animal play expert Bob Fagen, “In a world continually presenting unique challenges and ambiguity, play prepares [animals] for an evolving planet” (p. 29). Throughout the book, Brown makes the case that play is deeply involved in human development as well. Of course play is also essential for creativity. Playful exploration of the world is at the heart of problem finding, and playing with ideas is the engine that drives creative thinking. Cutting edge companies have learned that providing a playful environment is a plus for developing innovation thinking. I’m definitely envious of the Google workspace in my hometown!

play2Understanding the importance of play made it particularly poignant to read Hilary Conklin’s introduction to an article on the role of play in middle schools. After discussing current calls for a creative workforce, she said:

Yet if creativity, imagination, and play are considered critical student outcomes, where are they featured in existing frameworks for teaching? In fact, in the current age of accountability, play, creativity, and joy are not only absent from prominent frameworks for effective teaching, they are increasingly absent from young people’s classrooms and lives … With the narrowing of school curricula and increased pressures for testing has come an erosion of joy for both the young people and adults who inhabit classroom spaces.(p. 1228)

Erosion of joy. How sad is that? And she’s right. When we think about planning lessons–or evaluating teachers–how many of us work with guidelines that suggest creativity, imagination, or play matter? Not many I know, certainly not beyond preschool.

Conklin observed beginning middle school teachers, trying to understand their paths into the profession. One of the unexpected things she found was the importance both students and teachers placed on the playful aspects of teaching and learning. They often called them “fun,” but they included humor, creative explorations, imagination, games and original projects. While she did not examine the relationship between play and achievement, Conklin did conclude that play mattered. The playful aspects of class seemed to add to both motivation and learning.

Conklin says, and I agree, we need to understand more about the role of play and playfulness in learning. Perhaps we can start in your classroom? More on play next post. It just seems time.

PS If you’d like to hear Stuart Brown’s take on the importance of play, here’s his TED talk. Enjoy!


Conklin, H. G. (2014). Toward more joyful learning: Integrating play into the frameworks of middle school teaching. Educational Research Journal, 51, 6, 1227-1255.

One thought on “When Do We Play?

  1. Pingback: Back to Basics for the New School Year: Learning and Creativity | creativiteach

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