WE VALUE PLAY, SERIOUSLY
I’m a tad embarrassed to admit that I read Parade, the pullout magazine of popular culture that accompanies the Sunday edition of The Seattle Times. (I pull my self-esteem back up by reading The New York Times.) But I read Parade strictly for professional reasons – seriously! – and for the insight it gives me into mass media and popular trends. I tell myself that I need to know what the rest of the country is thinking about stuff. And so I felt vindicated recently to read a short article in Parade titled, “Act like a Kid: Get happier, healthier, smarter.” It’s always gratifying to read something I already know: “But more and more research is revealing that fun is not frivolous. It’s crucial to good health and well-being whatever your age. In fact, being playful may help you think better (and more creatively), remember more, lower your stress levels and bolster your immune system.”
But Parade is not the only publication touting the benefits of play. Every few weeks, I run across new articles and editorials promoting the advantages of play in education and bemoaning the erosion of play time and exercise in school schedules. Thanks to brain-scanning advances, we now understand that young brains, particularly in the early elementary years, respond better to active exploration than didactic methods of instruction. In the August edition of SmartBlog on Education, Lucien Vattel writes: “Play embodies our natural inclination to explore and experiment with objects and systems outside of us and integrate them first-hand into our psyche. Through educational play, we get to explore new ideas and come to know ourselves, as well as those around us in often-profound ways.”
This embrace of the power of play and the potential synergy between work and play reminds me of the concept of flow. In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi* describes activities that bring a heightened level of concentration, immersion, and enjoyment, when our sense of time is suspended and fluid. In flow, we reach the “sweet spot” of challenge, where our activity is neither too easy nor too difficult. Just as in effective learning, there are clear goals and immediate and specific feedback in flow activities. In flow, our sense of self-consciousness recedes as we become fully engaged in what we are doing. According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow, like play, is autotelic: it’s an activity that is done because doing it is has its own rewards.
At The Valley School, we’re serious about “being playful.” That may seem oxymoronic (which is always a fun word to use). In fact, taking play seriously means that we recognize the educational, emotional, social, and intellectual benefits of play, and we build play into the daily experience of our students. It also means that we don’t always segregate work and play, often an artificial separation. Instead of saying that play is what happens outside during recess and work is what happens inside the classroom, we believe that play, outside and inside, often has all of the components and benefits of work. Similarly, the more academic work in literacy and numeracy that happens in the classroom can often be playful, spontaneous, enjoyable, and creative. For this reason, we talk at Valley about “playful work and purposeful play.”
On my daily “walkabouts,” when I stop in on every class, I see ample evidence of teachers and students “being playful.” Whether it’s three kindergarten boys building a pyramid of 171 red Dixie cups that is “as tall as Alan” – yes, 6’4” – or all fourth graders singing a mathematics song called “Inspector Factor” and composing a rap about the commutative property, Valley students are learning that learning can be fun and playful. On our playgrounds, children take the initiative to dig trenches and study how water flows; it’s both play and work. They pick up chickens and learn how to handle animals with sensitivity and respect; they learn about animal care through experience, not just books. Simulation games, like the role-playing pioneer journey that fifth graders do in the spring, pull children into a deeper level of engagement in the topics they are studying. Through the games they invent, both in the classroom and the playground, they learn cooperation, conflict resolution, negotiation, risk-taking, communication, and creativity, what many educators have called “21st Century Skills.”
Yes, we are serious about play.
And so it’s only appropriate that now, in our 30th year as a school, we pause and celebrate “30 Years of Play” at our Valley School Fundraiser on Saturday, November 7.
Let’s play, seriously!
- That’s pronounced “cheek-sent-me-hy-ee”!