The Power of Play, Part I: To Play is to Learn

I can say with a sense of pride that one of my greatest qualities, one that I believe my friends and family would attest to, is my ability to be jovial.

Jovial: (adjective) cheerful and friendly; synonym(s): good-natured; sociable; high-spirited; exuberant; chipper; bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.

Whenever I get a character question on a job application or an online survey, one of those questions that asks to “describe yourself in three words,” I use jovial as one of my words. Interestingly, I find that my jovial nature, or my joie de vivre, stems from my undying love of play. This is something that I believe my friends and family would also attest to: I like to play, and sometimes, they would probably also say, a little too much. In fact, if I had a dollar for every time I have been told I was “a big kid,” well, I’d be able to afford a lavish trip to an amusement park in order to continue my pursuit of play. Most of those times that I have been called “a big kid” was by some awe-struck adult witnessing me doing something that could be conceived of as “childish.” I don’t know how many times I have exhausted myself in a game and/ or sport, that involved toys, competition, or simply another willing individual to get caught up in the heat-of-the-moment shenanigans.

This Means War

One of most beloved memories of adults at play is with some of my good friends: Rick Janzer, Joe Martinez, George Abraham, and John Sells. We were all in college at the time. Rick and a few other guys were renting a rather large and luxurious house in Riverside, California. One night, we were all hanging out at Rick’s large but sparsely decorated house, and like most typical college-aged guys, we were watching college football highlights on ESPN, playing Tiger Wood’s PGA Golf on Playstation, eating pizza, and throwing back a few cold ones.  For whatever reason, one of us stumbled upon a Costco-sized stockpile of toilet paper huddled in the back of a closet underneath the stairs. I can remember being impressed with sheer amount of toilet paper that one of the roommates had, for one reason or another, felt the need to purchase. Regardless of those reasons, the small arsenal of individually packaged toilet paper rolls looked like it contained not only the criteria for a few good jokes, but the necessary elements for a good time. I picked up one of the tightly packaged rolls and playfully tossed it across the room at Rick, and he, being equally ready for any moment of play, whizzed the roll back at me with a speed far greater than I had anticipated. I ducked, popped back up, and after a quick moment of intense silence, realized, as we all did, that this meant war— a toilet paper war!

I immediately began shoveling ammunition out of the closet. Without a word, everyone else stopped what they were doing and started securing those few potentially valuable or breakable items that were in the house. It took only a minute or two thereafter for everyone to grab a few stockpiles of rolls, find cover around a corner or behind a piece of furniture, switch off the lights, and commence firing. The details of the next hour and a half are fuzzy at best. I can, however,  recall the sounds: the whizzing of a paper-covered projectile flying by my head; the grunting as men got whopped in the chest by a high-speed roll; the screeching of furniture being pushed across the tile floor; the thud of feet rushing upstairs in order to gain higher ground; the slamming of doors; the calls for more ammo; the taunts of the enemy; the screams of victory; the murmurs of defeat; and ultimately, the maniacal laugher of men fiercely at play.

Serious Play

When the toilet paper war was finally over, we were sweaty, exhausted, and the house was a mess, but we had created a revolutionary new sport and were more than excited to work out its intricate details through the flurry of play. That was over ten years ago, but I have not lost my appreciation for play, especially now that I am on the verge of having my own son. He will want me to play with him; more importantly, he will need me to play with him if he is to learn and grow in this world. Thankfully, my jovial nature and playful disposition has well equipped me to do that very thing: engage my son in the seriousness of play.

Alison Gopnik, in her article “Why Play is Serious,” from an August 2012 edition of Smithsonian magazine, highlights some of the ways in which play is, in fact, crucial in the development of children. She says, “People have suspected that play helps children learn, but until recently there was little research that showed or explained why it might be true” (13). Again, practical wisdom seemed to, for millennia, dictate that kids need to play in order to be healthy and happy, but no one could fully explain why. Gopnik, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, now uses the philosophical term “counterfactual” thinking to help describe why play is for kids so important. As she continues, “We found that children who were better at pretending could reason better about counterfactuals – they were better at thinking about different possibilities. And thinking about possibilities plays a crucial role in the latest understanding about how children learn. The idea is that children at play are like pint-sized scientists testing theories. They imagine ways the world could work and predict the pattern of data that would follow if their theories were true, and then compare that pattern they actually see” (13).

I find this fascinating. Children are using counterfactual thinking to test the way the world is (reality/ current fact) versus the way it could be (fantasy/ possible fact). Children at play, then, are learning about the possibilities (real or imagined) that are embedded within reality. This is why the world is always so wide open for children. This is why they can “be anything they want.” And this is why they dream; they play so much. And they play so much because they are still testing the possibilities of their worlds. Therefore, when children are at play, it isn’t simply for entertainment’s sake; it isn’t simply a pastime; and it isn’t simply childish or silly. Play is an essential learning process.

If one were to plot this concept in the most basic way, it might look something like this:
Youth = Play = Possibilities = A multitude of worlds/ world views/ realities

Play is Powerful

Kids know this. We knew it when we were kids; that is why it is the only thing we always wanted to do when we were kids. Scientists know it better now. However, most adults forget about this power of play (unless it applies to their own children), and thus, they have also forgotten the possibilities in life that open because of play. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld, illustrates this fact by highlighting the way children and adults talk. Since the way we talk about the world is a direct reflection of how we view the world, I think his social commentary is telling:

“Wait UP!”
That’s what kids say.
They don’t say, wait.
They say, wait up!
[Imitating a child’s voice] “Hey, wait up!”
Because when you are little, your life is up.
The future is up.
Everything you want is…up.
Wait up.
Hold up.
Shut up.
[Again, imitating a child’s voice] “Mom, I’ll clean up!”
“Let me stay…UP!”

Parents, of course, are just the opposite.
Everything is down.
[Imitating an aggravated parent] “Just calm down!”
“Slow down!”
“Come down here!”
“Sit down!”
“Put that…DOWN”

A comedic bit based on semantics, but still seemingly true. For children everything is up; for adults everything is down. Funny, yet tragic. At what point in life do things stop being up and they start going down– and downhill for that matter? When did play stop being useful? As I have previously stated, I find play not only fun, but valuable. This is one of the reasons why I plan on playing with my son as much time will allow. Play houses the idea of what is possible; play tests the bounds of what doesn’t work and pits it against what could work, and I want my son to be able to imagine endless possibilities. I want him to know that the world, to use another old adage, is his oyster. Again, play is the learning process by which he will learn this.

A New Equation

Youth = Play = Possibilities = A multitude of worlds/ world views/ realities

Interestingly, I don’t think that the learning process is linear as this little equation suggests; that is, I don’t think it begins in youth and has its end in adulthood (when we subscribe to the notion that one’s world/ world view/ reality is fixed). The process of play is cyclical, ongoing, and, therefore, (should be) continued all throughout one’s life.

If I may offer more to the equation:
Youth = Play = Possibilities = A multitude of worlds/ world views/ realities = More possibilities = More play = More Youth (or for adults: a renewed, reinvigorated, and reimagined youth).

If the cyclical nature of learning as a result of play is true, then play is revolutionary. For it not only helps children test limits, boundaries, rules, laws, or possibilities in reality, then it should do the same for adults as well. Granted the adult brain is more fully formed than that of a child, but that is biology, and this is not a biological discussion. Besides, the old aphorism, “you are only as old as you feel” seems to carry some weight here. A persons’s perspective, possibilities, education, world view, and/or reality doesn’t have to stop growing simply because they stop (biologically) growing. So why is playing cut out of so many people’s lives? Because it is “childish?” Or because someone feels they have no more need/want to grow?

First, as an educator and secondly, as an individual that appreciates play, it is a sad day when people start thinking they no longer need to learn or grow. Sure, there are other ways to grow, education being one of the main methods. That is good and well. I, too, have a few degrees on my wall that say I am “educated,” but most of my education has been acquired outside of the classroom. Most of my education has been acquired while I was at play. I read books “for fun;” I travel “for fun;” Half of the time I teach, “for fun” (because I sure as hell am not doing it for the bucket loads of money); and I explore various cultures, communities, and climates “for fun.” Ultimately, all of this “fun,” all of this play, leads me to more possibilities in life; which leads me to more worlds, more world views, and more realities; which leads me to more possibilities; which leads to more play; which leads to a renewed feeling of youth; which leads me to—- I’d imagine you get the idea.
Youth = Play = Possibilities = A multitude of worlds/ world views/ realities = More possibilities = More play = More Youth

In sum, play is essential to learning and human understanding. For a child, play and the process of pretending equips him/her for counterfactual thinking; the type of thinking that allows for exploring possibilities, opportunities, and differences in the world. For an adult, play and the process of pretending, otherwise known as creative thinking in the adult world, equips him/ her for counterfactual thinking; the type of thinking that the business world values as outside-of-the-box or divergent thinking. Maybe this is why Google has, for the sixth straight year, been labeled the number one company to work for by Fortune; their workplace “campuses” provide everything from scooters, climbing walls, hacky sacks, hammocks, and video games. They sow a culture of pastime and play that, in turn, reaps a company of intrigue and innovation. Likewise, if children and adults alike are to escape boredom and stagnation, play is ultimately the answer. Play has always been the answer, and now science along with centuries of practical observation helps prove that.

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