Summer is finally here, and both students and teachers appear anxious to trade the confines of classroom life for something much more fun. The general consensus from most of my students is that they consider summer to be the best part of their year. As a teacher, hearing this sentiment verbalized makes me feel like someone just broke my iPhone: I work really hard during the school year to make learning fun and exciting for students, and summer is stereotypically classified as a lazy time period. So what does good ole’ summer know about engaging students that I do not? Lots apparently, because summer is an expert on taking PLAY seriously, which is something educators can learn a thing or two about.
So you might be wondering, what do educators need to know about the importance of play?
- Play is essential to learning: Study after study has shown that play is not only practical, it is an essential part of the learning process. The act of playing allows individuals to be curious, to investigate, to create. Play fosters communication, both verbal and nonverbal, and provides opportunities for important life skills like collaboration and patience. The art of play is imperative to good human growth because it is a safe opportunity for people to explore and learn physically, mentally, and emotionally.
- Play is intrinsically motivating: It is amazing how much you can learn when your goal isn’t to learn. Summer knows all about this hidden gem of information. Without a doubt, one of the best parts about play is that it is something individuals engage in for no other reason except for pure individual enjoyment or interest. Although play should never have a bigger purpose than this, individuals will still take away a wealth of information and skills in the process. Teachers can’t create this type of motivation in students, but play certainly can.
- Play is social, in a good way: As children grow up, the social aspect of life becomes much more important. Peer pressure creeps in at a very young age, and how our peers view us starts to matter more than how we view ourselves. Not only can play provide excellent opportunities to be social and gain important social skills, play can also give individuals an opportunity to step outside the boundaries of the real world and be creative without the worries of what others think. People start to express insightful scenarios and solutions for problems when they aren’t worried about getting something right or wrong in front of their peers. Competition can be fun, not hurtful, when you are only competing for the best solution or bragging rights, and not a grade on a report card.
- Play is therapeutic: Summer allows students the time to learn through playing without a set purpose. We wonder why students come back to school so relaxed… Playing without a purpose calms you and makes you feel good on the inside, which then shows on the outside. Play can make you feel young at heart and worry-free while you are doing it. For many individuals, play can be a way to bridge the gap between bad memories and good memories, delineate between appropriate and inappropriate situations, and even offer the opportunity for basic acquisition of social skills. Giving individuals guided play therapy by trained professionals can provide many struggling individuals with the appropriate skills, strategies, and tools to be a healthier and happier contributing member of our society. Whether play is needed for a specific therapy or not, play is indeed therapeutic for people of all ages, all sizes, and all abilities.
Summer recognizes how important play is for our students… why don’t teachers? Summer gives students the time and opportunity to explore and learn, and educators can learn from that precious allocated time. As students move through our public school systems, we start to take away crayons, sandboxes, toys, and other creative and fun tools from children and replace them with with functional tools like desks, books, and pens. Why not continue to give students age-appropriate, creative, 21st century toys/tools that they desperately desire to play with… and then let them play? Are we concerned that all of those fun and games might impact their learning?
We should be concerned, because it will. Play can impact their learning in ways we simply cannot. And play is not just for children. Play is important for all ages, as it is critical to our daily success and knowledge. I am often asked about my expertise on iPods, iPhones, and iPads: where did I learn so much? My answer is easy and effortless, I play. Some people love playing football (and can give statistics about their favorite players throughout their careers), and some people love playing music (and can talk about which chords were played best on which instrument for a given song). I just happen to love playing with iOS devices (and can you tell you about all kinds of tips, tricks, apps, and related history). I truly enjoy just playing around with touch screen technology, I find it to be magical personally. I love discovering new apps, and then I love trying to figure out what they do. I like to challenge myself to see how I could use it to do something unexpected. I didn’t mean to, but I made my learning into a game itself, which allowed me to turn playtime into my daily job. Forget teaching, I get paid to play… teaching just happens to go on during the process of playing.
So I play. And I learn. As simple as that. I don’t play to learn… the learning is really just a byproduct. My motivation is intrinsic, I play because it is fun. Although my play is often independent, it is still social: when I come across something interesting in my explorations, or find a way to do something creative with an app, I share it. I talk about it, I tweet about, or I show someone. My play is therapeutic as well, it a calm time at the end of my day. I take a lot of ribbing from people when they see that I tweet in the middle of the night: “what are you doing up so late working?” Easy, I’m not working. I’m playing.
Play can take many forms, and can happen at any age. It can be formal or informal. It can be structured or unstructured. No matter what type of play, play is important. As our school years close out, I hope that teachers encourage their students to play hard all summer, and offer them tools, resources, and toys to encourage that mentality. But I hope that teachers, administrators, and parents play hard too. There are so many wonderful technology tools, resources, and toys available to help us improve students’ learning throughout the year. Spend some time this summer just playing with Web 2.0 tools, apps, and online content without a purpose in mind. Just play, and see what happens after.
So listen to summer, stop working hard and start playing hard. You might be surprised what you will learn in the process.