Play is the Thing

Posted: 15th August 2017 by kkeerybi in Uncategorized

This morning, a twitter conversation between Andrew Campbell (@acampbell99) and Matthew Oldridge (@MatthewOldridge) caught my eye:

I respect and appreciate the work of both of these gentleman and I wondered:

Andrew responded with his thoughts:

I wonder still, though, is that true?  Is the playfulness of an action in inverse correlation to the challenge it possesses?

As it happens, I’ve done a lot of playing this summer.  Some of it was not at all challenging:  paddling at the cottage or inventing new cookie flavour combos were fun things to do, but weren’t overly taxing cognitively, physically or otherwise.

I also engaged in some forms of play that were challenging.  I decided (a while ago, I’m slow at play apparently) to write a novel, just for fun.  Purely recreationally – while I hope one day to get it published, when I set out to do it, I did it just to see if I could.  I like writing; it is fun for me.  For me, writing a novel was totally play.  It was also one of the most challenging things I have ever taken on.  That didn’t make it less fun, but possibly more.  It was a mountain that I challenged myself to climb and I wasn’t giving up until I was at the top.  I’m not sure if I would have had as much fun if it wasn’t quite so challenging.

I’ve also watched others play this summer.  One of those I’ve watched pretty closely is my 11 year old daughter.  She is a perpetual motion machine; the kid never stops moving.  During the school year, she trains 4 days a week as a circus performer and plays on every possible team and sport at school as many days of the week as she can.  This summer, due to scheduling glitches, she only trained two days a week and didn’t play any sports competitively.  For the first time in a long time, she had ample time to play.

I wasn’t surprised that many of her play choices were physical ones.  What I was surprised by was how much she challenged herself in her play.  She used a wide variety of equipment (climbing ropes, trampoline, balance beam, trapeze, aerial hammock, balancing canes) in our house and taught herself a ton of skills that exceed those she does in her required training, both in complexity and strength needed.  For her, playing meant doing stuff that was hard; over and over again, for fun.  This was pure recreation – no coaches or audiences were watching – and the challenge was the carrot to make her play worthwhile for herself.

I can’t help but make connections to the experiences of play I see at school.  There are times that it isn’t challenging at all.  At times, students want to engage in play that is repetitive or mindless or easy for them.  But, I would argue that more often than not, play IS about the challenge.  Whether it is a challenge to see how well they can do at something they couldn’t do before, how well they can do against another person, how to explore new or novel ideas or situations and align them with their schema, the commonality is that it is a challenge.  Further, the challenge is part of the intrinsic motivation – it is what makes the play fun, or recreational, and therefore makes it actually play.

Maybe my definition of play is different than the one Andrew provided, and if that’s the case, we may end arguing on the same side.  But the original quote from Matthew was about using play in mathematics.  Using play – making math fun – is good for mathematics and for the students who need to learn it.  Making the play in math challenging is also a good thing because it provides some of that motivation students need to continue pursuing it.  And, I would say that I have seen really good math teachers who seamlessly combine the two – challenge and play – to the benefit of their students. Math may be the mountain many of our students need to climb and if making it playful and challenging is what helps them get to the top (and want to get there), that sounds like a worthwhile endeavour, doesn’t it?

  1. adunsige says:

    Kristi, I feel as though I need to comment on your post and write my own post as well. (And I’m not so sure that I’m awake enough tonight to do so, but I’m definitely going to try.) I agree wholeheartedly with what you said here. When it comes to play and math, my only hope is that we do less contrived play, and more free play. It’s amazing how much math learning comes from the child-directed free play, and when we notice and name this learning, and question (at times), the thinking often becomes that much more. Another wonderful thing that came out of the new K Document: “noticing and naming.”

    I guess it was Matthew’s tweet that will eventually lead to my post …

    Maybe it’s good that we all think about ways that we engage in challenging play. I think your book was a great example of that.