If gratitude is the mother of all virtues, perhaps play is the mother of all cognitive processes. Play frees us from restrictions that can hamper original thought: convention, pressure, fear of judgment, and real consequences. Some consider play the antithesis of work, but plenty of playful professionals or playful pedagogues suggest it is the merely the antithesis of constraint.
“Through play, we encounter challenges with delight, we brave overwhelming odds with hope, and we conquer our world with imagination. Play, as expressed in games, is the most positive response of the human spirit to a universe of uncertainty.” –MIT Game Lab
At the very least, play lends our classroom a little levity, and, in doing so, it works toward other goals we’ve identified: increasing engagement, building community, and promoting health and well-being.
But play can also lead to tremendously powerful scholarship. Take these paintings by scientist Alexander Fleming. The hues are microbes, and the canvas is agar in a petri dish. Dabbling with this biological palette seemed bizarre to many of his colleagues, yet through this play, Fleming ultimately discovered penicillin. Later, he won a Nobel Prize. Not bad for a little goofing off in the lab.
“My occupation is a simple one. I play with microbes. There are, of course, many rules in this play, and a certain amount of knowledge is required before you can fully enjoy the game, but, when you have acquired knowledge and experience, it is very pleasant to break the rules and to be able to find something that nobody had thought of.” –Alexander Fleming
Chapin students have quite literally experienced this sort of play: In Molecular Genetics, they paint with bioluminescent bacteria. One student (Jenny X.) even won an award for her bioart!
Play has many forms, from solo to cooperative, rule-based to open-ended, competitive to imaginative. And, of course, some forms may feel more intellectually stimulating than others. In addition, boundaries that may demarcate play, creativity, and games are fluid. (In fact, keep your eye out for a March micro-pd focused solely on digital games.) So, as we strive to bring more or a greater variety of play into our virtual curricula in 2021, where agar plates are not as handy, perhaps a good pedagogical model is to start with questions: Why specifically do we want to incorporate play and what kind of digital components might best provide the environment?
Looking to add a little more energy into an otherwise work-intensive class? A quick game of course-vocabulary charades or Pictionary on the Zoom whiteboard (or scribbl.io, though it's laden with ads) might reinforce content while infusing some fun. Eager for your students to think of elements in more dynamic, original ways? Perhaps firing up the imagination with a little role-playing is the way to go. Each student adopts an identity from the Periodic Table. After research, they join a speed-dating Zoom session renamed as Oxygen or Neptunium. Who mixes well with whom? Who’s always trying to get a “reaction” out of the others? Who “bonded” with whom? The puns alone might be worth the time.
And the great thing about play, is that the possibilities are endless.
Three notes of caution before the fun begins:
The older students are, the more out of practice or reluctant they might be. But rest assured that often the ones who seem least interested are the ones who need it most.
Harvard’s Project Zero reminds us that play is born out of cultural values. It informs and is informed by cultural norms. So, Chapin seniors may be more comfortable at first with competitive play than imaginative play. And giving students the opportunity to make the rules or set the terms might bring more culturally diverse play into the mix.
Play is intended to be fun. So "playing" with tough topics that demand sensitivity can send mixed-messages at best and do real harm at worst. That said, Barnard College’s “Reacting to the Past” method provides a great structure for powerful, serious role-playing of even the most challenging histories—and they’ve got a workshop coming up mid-January!
Got 5 minutes?
Invite students to create memes from their assignments or units with prompts like "What pandemic advice might Cyrano de Bergerac give?" (Here's a how-to video.) Take five minutes at the start of each class to have the kids share, or post them on your Academic Manager page. (Remind kids to stay school appropriate with memes!) Or, ask students to summarize last night’s reading assignment using only emojis or typing in the chat using only words that don't include the letter e.
Got a whole class period?
Invite students to role play with course content and social media. Social media simulators like TweetGen (watch a how-to) or Zeeoob can promote imaginative role play. Students can create faux posts as a character in a book, a historical figure, a biological system, a poetic device, a famed mathematician or scientist, or a country that speaks a particular language. Students can paste their posts on a shared Google Slides doc, as if the posts are in a thread.
Got a whole unit?
Move from play to playful pedagogy! Whatever your next unit, reconfigure it to reward the six key components that Davidson College’s Chair of Digital Studies, Mark Sample, identifies: process over product, low stakes over high stakes, mistakes over success, ambiguity over certainty, discovery over objectives, and divergent thinking over convergent thinking. How might your next unit on Toni Morrison, the theory of relativity, Catullus, parametric equations, or the Tang Dynasty invite deeper thinking with these more playful components?
Got an idea or resource to share?
Add it in the comments below, please!
Interested in more?
In less than 5 1/2 minutes, you can steal toy designer Shimpei Takahasi’s brainstorming game. Use flippity’s randomizer to achieve similar prompts. (Thanks, Trude!)
In over 5 minutes, you can, well, play! Prove to yourself that even solitary play can be both fun and intellectually stimulating. Little Alchemy is my personal favorite (drag elements on top of each other to make things).
In just over 20 minutes, you can learn a bit about constructive play in the design world from IDEO CEO Tim Brown.
If you need a new Netflix binge that might get you thinking about how to incorporate play in your discipline, try the series Abstract. Season 1’s episode on Christoph Niemann and Season 2’s episode on Cas Holman both attest to the power of play for creative thinking. Season 2’s episodes on Neri-Oxman (bio-architecture) and Ruth Carter (costume design) are must-sees as well and suit science and lit classes.