Did you play today?

Creativity requires taking and switching between different perspectives, and play facilitates exploring different perspectives, creating alternate worlds, assuming different roles, enacting different identities, and also taking all these, and the players themselves, out of the cognitive contexts in which they normally operate.                                                                   — Mainemelis and Ronson, 2010

image cc by Wootang01 on flickr

If you are like me at this time of year, you are more than ready for the winter break.  With less than two weeks to go, I am mindful of feeling emotionally and intellectually drained.  I am also amazed at how, despite feeling caput, I am energized when I step into the classroom and immerse myself in a fun lesson or activity with students.

Engaging through play

In the Spring, 2010 issue of the Rotman Magazine, Charalampos Mainemelis and Sarah Ronson discuss notions of play, creativity and engagement in their article, “Ideas are Born in Fields of Play:  Creativity & Play in Organizations”.  They suggest that play manifests itself in our busy work environments in two ways:

1.  Play as diversion.  This is when employees check out periodically to engage in diversionary activities such as catching up on Facebook.  Rather than being a waste of time, the authors argue that this type of play is beneficial:

Such play provides mental breaks, which are important for incubation — the stage of the creative process that involves unconscious processing and the free recombination of ideas….  In addition, a moment of fun with colleagues helps team members break down hierarchical boundaries and relate to one another in a personal way.

When we step outside our traditional work roles and engage in interactions not typical of our work, we engage in play.  The challenge is to maintain the benefit of these playful, diversionary moments after they are finished and we are back to our ‘real work’.  This holds true for education.  We can use play to engage both students and colleagues, but what can we do to maintain the atmosphere of trust engendered by instances of playfulness?

2.  Play as engagement.  This is the type of play that is part of the everyday work you do.  For instance, musicians play when they work together to write music — they mix sounds and experiment with combinations, using imagination and creativity.

Within the context of education, where are there opportunities for harnessing diversionary play and introducing more play as engagement, in our classrooms and our learning experiences?

Playing with Creativity

Mainemelis and Ronson explore the cognitive processes that engender creativity through playful experiences  Four of the processes they discuss relate directly to learning and education:

  • Problem Framing: Reframing problems to allow for multiple possible solutions is a basis for creative activity.  In play, as in improvisation in musical composition or dramatic performance, problems are reframed in many unique ways, allowing for the proliferation of creative responses.
  • Divergent Thinking: Through play space is created for shifts in perspective, another condition for creativity.
  • Mental Transformations: When the way we think is flexible and open to change, we open a door to creativity.  In play, we take risks and open ourselves to imagining new possibilities.
  • Experimentation: When risk is lowered through play, the ideal conditions for experimentation and improvisation come into existence.

Think about the types of learning experiences we offer our students.  How many of them include these elements?  Below are a few examples of activities through which students (and teaching staff) might unleash their creative capacities:

  • providing legos or other building materials for students to explore and construct models of things, events or processes, such as a model of the economic process (raw materials to your dinner plate, for instance)  Here is a link to a student interviewed by Wes Fryer regarding Lego and Creativity
  • providing truly open-ended questions in math class (For instance, “how much candy gets distributed at Halloween?”) and allowing students to struggle with determining which variables are important and relevant.
  • encouraging students to assume the role of detective or when approaching a problem in science (or any other) class (“What happened here?”)
  • making time in the computer lab for students to pursue creative interests (blogging, animation, recording music, etc…)

What other activities have you tried or seen that would qualify as playful and therefore open to creative approaches?