I had a birthday last week. I had balloons, courtesy of a five-year-old companion, ice cream sundaes, and many greetings from friends. I even had presents. These included a small plastic glow-in-the-dark cat and two puppets, one a giant clam, complete with pearl, and the other a little girl who looks as if she could have come straight from the Muppets. I’m delighted. Something similar happened when I retired—my very favorite tribute was an enormous toad puppet. Clearly, I enjoy puppets, but as I’ve thought about it, it is broader than that. I enjoy play. Play, and playfulness, provide the heart of creativity. I think about it a lot (see, for example, here and here.)
Play allows us to imagine things beyond our current experiences. Bob Fagen, who spent years studying animal play behavior, suggested that play has more than one important purpose. When pushed for a scholarly reason to explain playfully wrestling bears, he said “In a world continually presenting unique challenges and ambiguity, play prepares those bears for an evolving planet.” But his first, and perhaps most truthful answer to why the bears were playing was, “Because it’s fun” (Brown, 2009).
Today the world, for both humans and bears, is full of unique challenges and ambiguity. It is stressful and frightening. When we think about all the ways we equip young people to inhabit these difficult spaces, play may not be the first thing that comes to mind, but perhaps it should be. It is easy to think that in difficult times, we may not have time for play. Now, when many students have missed essential content across multiple pandemic years, it is tempting to suggest it is time to “get down to business.” But, like the teacher who says, “We don’t have time for questions, this is time for learning,” suggesting that education will occur without play is missing a key point. Play is tied to exploration and creativity, to language development, social negotiation, emotional regulation, problem solving, and a host of other skills. It is not just for young children. Play with ideas is tied to curiosity—which is tied to learning. We learn ideas better when we are curious about them, and playing with ideas can make us curious. Play brings ideas together in unexpected ways. Just this week, while engaged in yet another dramatic re-enactment of “The Three Bears” I had an insight into another area of study. Why? Partially because the content of the story made a link, but also because at that moment my brain was roaming more freely than when seated at my computer, allowing for new connections. Besides, play is fun. And don’t we all need a bit more fun right now?
This week let’s resolve to work hard but not lose time for play, for our families, our students, or ourselves. Play games; tell stories; invent sports, play with ideas. Let your mind wander into new places. You may be surprised at what you learn. And besides, you may have fun.
Brown, S. (2009). Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul. Avery.