Tuesday, May 01, 2007

All Work And No Play . . .

Dan Maas is my school district’s CIO. This is his first year in my district and he’s really brought energy and vision with him. He also has a blog, and a recent post is about the importance of play. It turns out that Dan not only has a talent for running our district technology department, but he also has a talent for plain old running. Talent, as in sub-four minute mile talent. Because he says it so well, let me repeat most of his post here (bold emphasis added by me):
We talked about our educational experiences and agreed that the best learning moments for us happened when we were playing at real life. I was harkened back to my development as a competitive track athlete:

For those who don't know, I am the 193rd American to run a sub-four minute mile. This is a mark of excellence in my event and I can recall spending years dreaming of accomplishing it. I recall in my earliest years how many adults around me hoped their young sons would achieve this standard of excellence. Their solution was to take adult work and assign it to their children. If a great runner covers 70 miles per week at age 21, then they would push their kids to run 50 miles per week at age 9. And when I was 9, I was soundly defeated in race after race by the kids who ran that way. But long about age 16, I wasn't being beaten any more. I was soon the one training harder, running more miles and winning races. By the time we graduated from high school, I was among the best in the nation and they weren't even running any more.

How could this have happened? The answer is simple. While adult-style work was imposed on them, I was playing. As we grew up, my play became more serious while they struggled with what felt like "work." Not long after middle school, as we were less and less inclined to do what adults around us told us to do, I embraced the running I had long played at while they rejected it as work.

The lesson I am hoping to share is that playing is critical for children. I'm not the first to realize this, in fact thousands of brilliant educators know this. The lesson is that if we want the young to embrace running, or sports, or the arts or science, or any other endeavor...it must be something they find rewarding, inspiring and something they can own. In essence, education should be playing at real life. The emphasis should begin with play at the beginning of education and become more real life as they approach graduation. The more interesting, the more authentic, the more rewarding and the more comparable to real life our educational experiences can be, I'm betting the more success we'll realize.

So, how does this connect to technology at Littleton Public Schools? Well, real life today is a connected, informed and participatory life. Real life in the 21st Century means that traditional barriers of time, space and money are being completely redefined. As we search for the new ways to educate children for a totally different world than what we grew up in, let's make sure we don't forget the essentials...the constants. Play at real life and use today's technologies to connect to other people rather than become isolated. Our human relationships shall always be our greatest resources and assets.
I don’t really have a lot to add this, I mainly just wanted to share. I’m usually not a fan of the idea of separating school from “real life” – usually referred to as “the real world,” because I think school is real life, is “the real world” for our students at this point in their lives. But other than that personal pet peeve of mine over that phrase, the bolded parts above really resonated with me. We’ve had lots of discussions in our staff development about “the real world” and how students have to do thus and such because they’ll have to do it in “real life.” But I keep finding myself returning to the same questions, “Why?” and “Isn’t there a better way?” and “If there is a better way, don’t we want that for our children?” As usual, I have lots of questions, but very few answers.

Image Citation: Running Guy, originally uploaded by Aaron.


  1. Ah, yes! And I would add that those of us who continue to love to learn see it as the most stimulating "play"! Figuring out a new web 2.0 doo-dad (and dreaming of ways to use it in useful "play," i.e. learning) is as much a thrill as figuring out how to skip a water polo ball off the water into the goal or make a seven letter triple word score in Scrabble. "Playing" a sport requires knowing some fundaMENTAL skills, as does the play of learning. But they don't have to be drudgery. The adults in the world at some point thought we had to take the "play" out of learning for some Puritan reason. The effective learning communities we all hope to be a part of continue to feel learning as play. Why did the start of "formal education" come to mean the end of play, anyway? Kids hear "Go outside and play" when they get home from school. We should stand at the door of our classrooms (virtual or real) and say, "Come inside and play!"

  2. I'd ad to your thought of school as "play". All too often, teachers use the word "work" to describe what is done in their classroom. "Do your work", "Home work", "Turn in your work". Learning is seen as a task and not as an enjoyable activity.

    I recall learning about a psychologist named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who wrote about "Flow"; the idea that when you get truly engaged in something you love, you experience "Flow" and time goes by unoticed. I recall momments like this as botha student and a teacher with a really enagaging activity. A Rutgers University Professor, Michael Smith wrote a book called "Reading Don;t Fix No Chevy's" (I love the title) http://books.heinemann.com/products/0509.aspx

    and in this book he talked about how many boys experiecne flow while working on cars while they do not experience flow when reading. He gives suggestions on how to change their interest by reading authentic text for a purpose.

    I think if someone could have shown me how using Pi or proofs or quadratic formulas could have been "play"; I think math would have been a bigger part of my life!

  3. Wow, that was a very powerful commentary!

    It really reminds me of Whole New Mind, and Pink's section on play.

    There is something in secondary education particularly that seems to scorn this idea of play in learning.

    I know some folks I work with consider the hours I spend figuring out web 2.0 tools, or learning how to use things as work, but to me it is the sheer fun of figuring it out.

    It's those wonderful "aha" moments that happen that make it worthwhile, as well as knowing it will be helpful to someone else down the road.

    As we've been reading Daniel Pink's book, and looking at different college design or innovation institutes, we've been talking a little at our campus about starting an "innovation" club or committee at our high school to nurture and support innovative and creative efforts of our students.

    I love Candace's call to "come inside and play."

    Just the word play invokes a sense of lightness and invitation.

    Thanks for sharing.

  4. What a concept of turning the perception of class from drudgery to experiential learning. I see my class as a place where I love to play and I hope that some of that enthusiasm transfers to my students. I want to shift how class is viewed to begin to see it more as a place of wonder and discovery. That sounds like a place that doesn't exist, but last summer I took a class where we "played" the entire time. I brought dozens of activities, labs and demos back to my classroom. That class sparked excitement and the desire to bring more "play" into my classroom. So if that is how I learn best how much more does that apply to our students? I wonder if "play" makes people uncomfortable because it denotes insignificance or triviality in our classroom?

  5. As I watch my 2 year old grow, I have learned a lot about how we learn. Toddlers learn almost everything through play, both independant play and group play. We can't be all that different as adults or even as the teenagers we teach. It is a much more wholistic approach that we even laughed about in the movie "Caddyshack" when Chevy Chase told his mentee to "be the ball". Although that was funny, it really resonated with golfers and I bet improved some of their games as well. Anyway, we must never loose sight of the fact that we can learn a lot through indirect instruction and play in education.