We’re from Phoenix, which alternates between blazingly hot and nice. We had two seasons: football and baseball. The only thing that changed color in the fall were the license plates of all the people ditching this thing called snow, which I’m just discovering now that I live in Oregon.

When we first moved here, people told us that it wouldn’t snow much.

“It’ll just be a dusting on the ground and then it will melt. You won’t need snow shovels or chains on your tires.”

Well, it hasn’t been a light dusting. It’s been more like a dumping of icy flakes. We’ve had four snowstorms where it actually stuck on the ground. I’m learning all about things like tire chains (which we haven’t actually attempted yet) and snow shovels.

And while the snow lasted, my kids played with it all the time.

All the time.

They make snowmen . . . and women. And snow zombies. And snow ninjas. And a snow artist named Bob Fross, who paints “happy little trees.” They’ve had snowball fights. They’ve gone sledding down the road.

In other words, they’ve played.

So a few weeks back, my son wanted to know what chemicals would melt the snow the best. We tried salt and vinegar . . . which I’m pretty sure is a salad dressing. We tried out body wash, which is a more expensive name for soap. We used rubbing alcohol. You get the idea.

To our surprise, the rubbing alcohol worked the best. We both really thought it would be the salt.

Later that day, my son had the idea of making a windshield defrosting liquid out of water and rubbing alcohol. I realize it’s not the most original idea, but it was original to him.

Curiosity to Creativity Cycle

It struck me that this sense of curiosity had led to creativity. After playing with snow, he became curious. That led to experimentation and ultimately led to creativity. I mention this because I often hear people say that creativity has to start with a real-world problem. Or they say you need to have empathy with an audience (a phrase I hear all the time in design thinking circles). And often that’s true.

But sometimes, it starts with play. You play around with the natural environment and that slack and flexibility leads to curiosity which ultimately leads to creativity. This happens all the time. The cycle looks a bit like this:

play creativity cycle

What begins as play turns into natural wonder and curiosity. This fuels experimentation and through that these experiments you land on something creative.

Unfortunately, school isn’t always set up this way. Often, we have packed curriculum maps leading to hurried lessons. The obsession with benchmark tests pushes play to the sidelines. In the past, I’ve seen students pulled away from recess so that they could have more one-on-one intervention time.

Play becomes one of those “if we get around to it,” activities. But play is vital for curiosity and creativity. And it has me thinking if we want our students to be more innovative and original and creative, we need play time.

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How Can We Integrate More Play into Our Schools?

  1. Bring back recess. I know this is simple but it’s also the most powerful answer. Let them have a longer unstructured time each day to play. I once observed a school that had added one extra 15-minute recess. The teachers were worried that the students would be less productive. However, the recess actually created a sort of jumpstart for their work later in the day.
  2. Rethink our assessment practices. If we cut out some of the time spent testing and all of the time spent practicing how to take tests, we would have a more flexible school day. This would allow for more play.
  3. Incorporate elements of play into each subject area. This might involve using a game or a simulation to teach a difficult concept. It might mean providing hands-on creative thinking challenges. Note that this isn’t about taking it easy or going soft. I’m not referring to playing Pictionary or doing Word Searches. I’m thinking more about developing those areas where students can think deeply while playing.
  4. Create moments of joy. Learning is often difficult. I get that. But Dean Shareski offers a great reminder that joy is vital for children — not as a means to an end but as an end in itself. As a teacher, you can plan out things that create a climate of joy. You can laugh. You can create mini-challenges. You can develop fun rituals. And in the process, you create a more play-like space.
  5. Follow the questions. Watch kids at play and you’ll notice that they are asking tons of questions. However, those same kids will step into a classroom and spend the whole time answering questions. While there’s nothing wrong with asking students to answer questions, there is a play-like element to student inquiry that can push creative thinking. Inquiry-based learning begins with student curiosity and wonder.
  6. Play with your subject. Years ago, Dan Meyer shared how he asked students “what can you do with this?” and presented intriguing mysteries that students would solve mathematically. I love that concept of treating math like a playground, where students can compare and contrast strategies and mess around with strategies without worrying about the one single “right way.”
  7. Allow for mistakes. The term “grit” has become popular over the last few years. Often, these conversations involve how to “raise the standards” and toughen kids up. However, I’ve noticed that students persevere when there’s a little more slack. They need to internalize the freedom to mess up. In other words, students will persevere when they have the chance to play.

I know it’s not always easy. Sometimes the system requires us to push play to the sidelines. But when teachers boldly choose to integrate play, students grow more curious. They learn to ask better questions and experiment with ideas. They become better problem-solvers and deeper thinkers.

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John Spencer

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


  • Tamara says:

    Do you have suggestions for books about enhancing learning through play, specifically focusing on the early primary grades?
    Thanks in advance.

  • […] first vlog that interested me was “How Play Leads to Creativity.” In this video, John explains that through play his son came up with an experiment to test […]

  • Robert Reed says:

    Wow, what a great piece of writing. I too have found that giving students an opportunity in the classroom to “play” can go a long way. In my classroom I call it Passion Time. The students often have 10 to 20 minutes at the end of the day to follow their passions. What I have found out by doing this is that the students come up with some amazing projects and questions. Producing those amazing projects brings, as is stated in the writing, “joy”. When it comes to the questions that are generated, I often send them back to their iPad to “Google it”. It is amazing to see the look in their eye when they have made a connection, or how happy they are that they were able to find the information on their own and learn from it and then pass it along to another students, which digs deep into the 21st Century model of teaching.

    All in all, providing this Passion Time inside of the classroom has enhanced the students confidence in their ability to not only find success inside of the classroom, but to be able to answer the questions that they most want answered. In the big scheme of things, are we not all scientists in some sort of way. Taking time to investigate, experiment, and answer our most sought after questions. That to me sounds a little bit like “play” and with technology inside of the classroom, students have those opportunities right in front of them.

  • James Sanger says:

    I see this SO MUCH! Currently I am an assistant in a play based preschool through a gymnastics facility. It is amazing to see the amount of development and learning that happens strictly through play.

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