I dwell in possibility
A fairer house than prose
More numerous of windows
Superior of doors
Emily Dickinson probably did not write these lines with the idea of play as an educational tool in mind; however, they do still apply. Educational theorists consider play to be something that “builds the person, not only through the development of experience-based skills and knowledge but also by habits of self-directed inquiry” (Henricks 193)—a concept that emphasizes the possibility inherent in creating a playful classroom.
In fact, research suggests that—in addition to being, well, fun—play can have a number of benefits in human development, including an increase in problem-solving skills, enhanced creativity and motivation, lower stress levels, and perhaps even longer lives (Gordon 249). And, among its most important achievements, play can increase nonlinear, divergent thinking among students. Our educational system’s current obsession with standardized testing tends to standardize students as well, leading to an increase in convergent thinking and a dearth of divergent thinking. As creativity expert Ken Robinson explains it in his TED talk below, American schools are killing creativity.
And because divergent thinking encourages its thinkers to work toward creative solutions to a problem rather than toward the single, most logical solution, it can be a crucial skill in the classroom, in the workplace, and in life. Click here for a good, easy-to-understand explanation and comparison of the convergent and divergent thinking styles.
As straightforward as that all seems to be, if you read ten articles about the incorporation of play in the classroom, you’re likely to find ten different definitions of the concept—as well as ten opinions on whether gamifying the classroom actually makes for an effective learning environment (some powerful defenses of play come from the US Play Coalition, located right here at Clemson). These definitions have evolved over time, as is apparent in this excerpt from Henricks:
[S]ome of the classic theorists claimed that play is an expression of surplus energy, a practicing of the instincts, or a pattern of relaxation from the pressures of an industrial civilization…. Others maintained the quite different (and, indeed, opposite) view that play is a form of energy restoration or re-creation…. [S]ome scholars argued that play is a form of catharsis, a purging of undesired feelings and tensions by expressive action within socially approved formats.
Many scholars (including Burghardt) agree, however, that as challenging as it is to pinpoint a definition of play, Martin and Caro come close with this one:
Play is all locomotor activity performed postnatally that appears to an observer to have no obvious immediate benefits for the player, in which motor patterns resembling those used in serious functional contexts may be used in modified forms. The motor acts constituting play have some or all of the following structural characteristics: exaggeration of movements, repetition of motor acts, and fragmentation disordering of sequences of motor acts.
But what are the principles of play? What makes play play? According to Eberle, “[I]t is best not to think of play as a thing, at all…but as a series of connected events. In this respect, play resembles a revolution, or a journey, or growth, or acceleration, or other processes that unfold and move along at varying rates” (220). That being said, he argues that the six basic elements of play are anticipation, surprise, pleasure, understanding, strength, and poise. And he offers several basic qualities of play. First, he argues, play exists for its own sake—an idea that may be challenging for teachers looking through the games and giggles for a pedagogical end to these means. Players play because they want to, he says, and because play is special and fun; if we impose rules on play, it ceases to be play. Finally, he writes, players play by rules—though he notes, “Rule making also includes rule breaking,” which is, apparently, part of the fun (216).