play in academia

So I was in my 3rd straight meeting this morning, the last in a string of meetings that seem to have dominated my work week. But it’s okay because I’m there with 2 of my favorite colleague-friends, and we’re there to talk about play. More specifically we are preparing to present/facilitate a session on the importance of play in learning to a group of college faculty. In the interviews I’ve done with faculty, I’ve been struck by how differently each of them views play, and I’d very much like to make sure our faculty-audience comes away with the sense that just as they teach their courses in a way unique to them, so they can incorporate a playful approach to learning in their own way. Here are some examples of playful approaches my faculty interviewees have taken in their classes:

  • Letting students experience doing the work of the discipline without any clear agenda of how they “should” proceed. Free, open play with the materials and tools of the discipline.
  • Giving students choice. As long-time teacher Don Arenz told me: “Learning is about the decisions the students make”, not the decisions the instructor makes.
  • Laying out the key rules of working in the discipline, and giving students the freedom to explore what they can do within the limits of those rules. (This approach would work well with math – what about other disciplines?)

Above all, these approaches require courage on the part of the instructor to let go of “control over” the class and the students. With “control over” there will always be anxiety on the part of students that they aren’t living up to the expertise and standard of the instructor. And anxiety actually, physiologically, prevents learning from occuring in the brain of the student. (I know, I need a citation. I’ll find it! I promise!) Along with courage is trust in students, trust in the natural human need to learn. To quote Don again: “I think learning is a blast and cannot be made otherwise.”

I’d love to hear your thoughts! How do you transform “work” into play in your own life?


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