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It’s supposed to snow this week, which reminds me of a moment four years ago when it snowed. We were from Phoenix, which meant our children had spent their lives  experiencing the two seasons of blazingly hot and nice. The only thing that changed color in the fall were the license plates of all the people ditching this thing called snow, which we were about to discover 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.”

While that’s generally true, we actually experienced a massive snow storm where the snow actually stuck. While the snow lasted, my kids played with it all the time.

All the time.

They walked away from their devices and simply played. They made snowmen . . . and women. And snow zombies. And snow ninjas. And a snow artist named Bob Fross, who painted “happy little trees.” They had snowball fights and went sledding down the road.

In other words, they played. All. The. Time.

A few days into this snowy period, my son grew curious. He wanted to know what chemicals would melt the snow the best.  Because the snow remained intact, we were able to do a little science experiment. We tested out 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. He was engaging in deeper creative thinking.

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The Power of Play

It was a reminder for me of the power of play. In the following sketch video, I explore why we need unstructured play in school:




This is why I will call a personal snow day if it snows this week. My kids will get the day off. See, I want my kids to make snow creatures and go sledding and walk around in the eerie silence that occurs when there are no vehicles around. I want them to run laps with the dogs and get into snowball fights. I am convinced that a full day of playing in the snow will be more valuable than a full day of Zoom meetings. Don’t get me wrong. I support virtual learning. The teachers are doing a fantastic job making the learning relevant. But as a teacher, I am convinced that deep learning occurs on snow days. These are the moments that stir up a sense of curiosity and wonder.

This is merely one of the benefits of play. Last week, I interviewed Jed Dearybury, the co-author of The Playful Classroom. I’ll be sharing the interview in an upcoming podcast episode. But here are a few of the benefits of play:

  • Play can help spark curiosity and wonder.
  • Play can help students think more divergently. We often learn how to make connections between ideas.
  • Play can allow people to be more open to new ideas. There is often a relaxed intensity in play that can help lead students into a state of flow.
  • Play has benefits, in terms of social emotional learning.
  • Play can help improve empathy, which has benefits on a personal and social level.
  • Play can teach students how to collaborate and cooperate with one another.
  • Play can increase student engagement and actually help with achievement.
  • Play can can develop a positive classroom culture. When students play together, they are able to develop a sense of collective belonging.

If you haven’t checked out The Playful Classroom, I highly recommend it. One of the key takeaways for me was the notion that play is vital for all ages, including higher education. It’s easy to forget this reality but we can all benefit from being more playful. When we play, we grow more curious and more creative.

Curiosity to Creativity Cycle

Curiosity often leads 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:

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.

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. The thing is, this wasn’t an elementary school. This was actually a middle school and it was highly effective.
  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. But we can also rethink our approach to assessment so that we focus on the playful elements of learning, including things like open-mindedness or creative risk-taking. In other words, we can help students engage in self-assessment and peer assessment in a way that is low risk and even playful.
  3. Incorporate game-based learning. This might involve using a game or a simulation to teach a difficult concept. 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. Try a divergent thinking challenge. It might mean providing hands-on creative thinking challenges. One of my favorite options is doing a scavenger hunt and then using those items as a creative constraint in designing something new.
  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. One way is through a Wonder Day project.
  6. 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. I’ve written before about how humor can lead to creativity in the classroom. For example, you might have inside jokes. We had a roller coaster in our classroom, which was just a drink coaster with Lego wheels at the bottom. We had a rule that if you said, “share a link,” someone had to send you a link to a Cher music video. I often drew a joke of the day. Many of these goofy jokes are now t-shirts that I sell in my merchandise store.
  7. 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.”
  8. 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.
  9. Use play as a form of SEL. I’ve seen teachers use humorous and fun examples for student check-ins, including this “how are you doing today?” meme with Nicholas Cage. Other teachers have done collaborative games. Each semester, I do a check-in by having students select an item as a show and tell activity. All of these ideas can help students experience a sense of belonging to the community while they process how they are doing socially and emotionally.

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

7 Comments

  • Tamara says:

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

    • Jon says:

      My comment might not answear to this specific question, at least directly because I’m not recommending book about enhancing learning throug play, I’m recommending to just play chess as enhanced lerning through play 😉 Of course there are books, which can help you with introducing this game, for example, you can check the one by Maksim Aksanov, really helpful! – net-boss.org/chess-puzzles-for-kids-by-maksim-aksanov

  • 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.

  • Renee says:

    J’aime vraiment l’idée du jeu. Je crois que les enfants apprennent beaucoup à travers le jeu, et nous perdons un peu cela en vieillissant l’envie de jouer. J’apprécie le concept de remerciement même à la maison avec mes enfants. être créatif et poser des questions fait grandir un enfant et peut aussi l’aider à sortir des sentiers battus. J’adore vraiment ramener l’idée de jouer. lorsque nous jouons à des jeux dans la classe, la classe s’anime d’enthousiasme et de nombreuses questions.

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