Why Do We Need to Play?

The kids are in the backyard blowing bubbles. The canister reads Miracle Bubbles and it seems, at first, like hyperbole. Joel pulls out the wand and creates a floating orb. Brenna jumps up and pops the first one in delight. Micah pulls out a wand (a fitting word for the magic that happens) and asks if blowing it slower will make the bubbles bigger or smaller.

This leads to a test of small and large bubbles and eventually an impromptu game happens to see how many bubbles they can pop without having to re-dip the wand. Next, they argue about what would happen if they changed the size and shape of the wand. We might just need to bend wires or paperclips to test out this theory later.

Miracle Bubbles.

Okay, it still sounds a bit like hyperbole. But I’m struck by the amount of learning that goes on in a short period of time – and that, the act of of play, feels, somehow magical. The same is true of the sidewalk chalk games and the imaginative painting and the story-telling they engaged in earlier this morning.

They’re learning through play.

I’m not sure how to define play. I’m not sure when engagement and learning become play. I think imagination, creativity, interactivity have something to do with it. But I’m not sure that my kids would even think to make the distinction in the first place. Play and learning are nearly synonymous. There is a playfulness to reading a National Geographic magazine and a seriousness to blowing bubbles.

I try to defend the concept of play by pointing out the functional aspects of play: increasing creativity, driving innovation, flexible thinking, paradoxical thinking, problem-solving, role-playing, social learning, authentic contexts, questioning (and inquiry in particular). I want to prove that play and career-readiness might go hand-in-hand, but I’m not so sure.

But as I watch them blowing bubbles in the backyard, I am struck by the fact that it’s not about being functional. Joel, Micah and Brenna would scoff at words like “driving innovation.” They’re playing, because that’s part of what it means to be human. It’s how we learn. It’s how interact. It is a human need and a human pleasure at the same time.

So, it has me thinking about the classroom. I find it sad that students have less permission to play as they grow into more naturally independent stages of development. Play is almost non-existent in middle school. Some see it as a waste of time. Others can’t reconcile it with rigid curriculum maps. Still, others  want to incorporate more play, but the testing culture gets in the way.

Initially, I find myself trying to prove the functionality of play. I want to prove that it “works.” But the truth is, I want students to play, because it is vital to how students learn. It may or may not come in handy in a job someday. But that’s not the point. We need to play, because we are human and that’s a part of how humans learn.

Lingering Questions:
How do we incorporate play into schools?
What does play look like for middle school and high school students?


John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.

More about John

7 responses

  1. Great post! I really liked how you described how play seemlessly transfers into experimentation. It's too bad that with such a fear of failure, most in our society miss these golden moments of unbridled learning.

    1. Thanks for the kind words!

  2. I think "play" is "work" minus the expectation of a particular outcome. There's no wrong way to play; if your block tower falls over or you can't find a rhyme for "purple", no one punishes you with a failing grade. It's the difference between divergent and convergent thinking: the best play generates many "what ifs", and the best work gets you closest to the answer at the back of the book.

    1. And yet the system is all about "learning targets" and "objectives" and "measurable outcomes." How do we fit in the need to play?

    2. Declare occasional assessment holidays? I read another teacher explaining how she gives her younger kids a day just to tinker with a new math tool (it was some kind of geometry building tool, I think) before starting in on the official lessons. That seems like a start, sneaking in tinkering moments. (Objective: To gain an intestinal-based understanding of the uses and functions of the tool through open-ended experimentation?)

      I'm not sure what the equivalents would be for every subject.

  3. My high school students enjoyed planning parties, for themselves and for others. They would plan a Christmas party for a nearby elementary school, taking food, presents, and then playing games with the little ones. This was like playing to them yet it taught them so much about planning, budgeting, cooperating, and evaluating. The last year I taught, my seniors planned a chalk art contest and festival at a nearby mall. It was hard work, in many ways, but they saw it all as play time.

    1. That's awesome. I love the concept of a chalk art contest.

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