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Learning at its Best

What Puts You In A Playful State of Mind?

“The enormous educative power of play lies in its triviality.” 

-Peter Gray

A couple of days ago I was talking with my mentor coach–I am currently in a program at Georgetown University to become a certified leadership coach–and we were discussing some aspects of the program and their implications for our lives.  It was a playful conversation.  My mentor coach holds himself very lightly and playfully–talking easily about himself, making fun of himself, being truthful and real in ways that are not heavy, or full of expertise (although he surely has a lot), or demanding of ground.  He is non-territorial, fun, open and endlessly curious.  He asks a lot of questions he doesn’t know the answers to like, “Was that a good exercise for you?” “What did you learn from that?”  “What does that look like for you?”  “What’s going on in that?”,  and he’s always up for exploring the answers.  He easily gets to an “I don’t know” state, a wondering place (a non-evaluating and non-expertise stance), which seems to free him and his clients to play, and open themselves to new possibilities, new knowings, new doorways to looking at the same old thing.

Conversations with my mentor coach put me in a playful state of mind, a place where I feel furiously curious and filled with buoyant, sparky energy: it feels like we can solve a lot of problems together.  Which according to Peter Gray, who is writing a new book on the subject of play in education, is exactly the evolutionary beauty of play: it is a biologically-programmed mental and psychological state in which under certain circumstances (non-evaluation, self-direction, self-chosen rules) we can open ourselves to extraordinary human possibilities.  We can literally rewire our brains.  A playful state of mind, the ideal state of mind in which to learn, is one where we are engaged in a self-chosen, self-directed activity, conducted in an unpressured situation in a positive frame of mind.

Peter Gray goes on to look at some of the other wonderful paradoxes of play: that it is guided by rules–it is not totally unstructured–but the rules are ones that we accept or even design ourselves (see Paula’s post on learning to love math for that).  Play also involves the real and the not real simultaneously (check out Chad and Menoo’s hack-school-games for a taste of this).  Frequently there are no tangible outcomes to play, it has no detectable purpose, it’s just the sheer fun of it that makes us want to jump in. This was all true in the coaching conversation I described with my mentor.  We were willingly following the rules of the coaching format, and also easily moving between what was real, and what could be, using lots of visual images, laughter, cooperative co-construction (“Yeah, I totally get that.” “Does that make sense?” “Yes, and…”).  We were doing something we both inherently enjoy, with no real “outcome” attached except that we are supposed to talk to each other, and we were engaged in stuff we both find really enjoyable–intrapersonal exploration–with a lot interpersonal lightness and silliness.

So I’m in a little think tank with Peter Gray and some other distinguished gentlemen.  (Yes women, this group is sadly all boys except for me at this point.)  For our next meeting I’ve asked everyone to think about–to notice–what puts them in a playful state of mind.

I’m asking you: what sparks you up and gets you into flow? What activities or kinds of conversations, what pursuits, what practices, help you be receptive, non-literal, active, alert, non-stressed, creative?  Silly, joyful? In your body? In your fun? In play?

Because until we start to notice our own playful states, and the conditions that help create them, we’re going to have trouble bringing playfulness to educational settings.

If the trivial is enormously consequential, what helps you to play?

What puts you in a playful state of mind?


About Kirsten Olson

I'm writer and educational activist. I work in public, charter, private, unschools. I'm here for the learning revolution.


9 thoughts on “What Puts You In A Playful State of Mind?

  1. I’m a sucker for any half-way well-composed chance to save the world…or galaxy. You know – I am infected by Western archetypes.

    I also like to kick around a soccer ball or hacky sack, to play four square, to play with Legos, to draw – to play sandbox video games and to play those video games that we in my house call my “paper doll” games.

    Choice. Possibility. Making. Story-telling. Audience participation/loss of the fourth wall.

    Sadly, the pun.

    I am interested in how quickly I can be triggered away from play in my work, and also in how resistant people can be to join in play with people with whom they don’t often play. You know?


    Posted by Chad Sansing | March 12, 2012, 8:19 pm
  2. Hey Chad, that’s a big discussion over at the think-tank group, about the whole concept of play being so undervalued and disdained–part of the literature on play cross-culturally too (as Pam’s post describes). I’ve started to take playing a lot more seriously–the trivial is important–and to try to build play into work as a way of making work better. I’m better with play.

    Paper dolls at your house. Sounds fun!

    Working on having playful meetings with work too!


    Posted by Kirsten | March 12, 2012, 10:14 pm
  3. Some of my best math classes are when we have “Game Day.” Kids absolutely love it, and the strategy and thinking that goes on in here is simply amazing. Last Friday one kid challenged me in Blokus and truly thought he’d whip up on me–he beats everyone in his house (which is really saying something!) When I whipped up on him, he didn’t want to play me anymore–and another kid grabbed me for the next 30 minutes, playing and replaying. I couldn’t tell you who won our 4 or 5 games (as I’ve said, I don’t pay attention to that usually), but he was really interesting to watch. He kept making comments on my strategies and trying to figure them out, whereas the first kid had his idea of how it should go and when it didn’t, he had no strategies for changing the outcome. As a teacher, that’s important for me to know–that he doesn’t know what to do when he doesn’t know what to do. Guess who I’ll be playing first next Game Day?

    Posted by Paula White | March 13, 2012, 9:21 am
  4. Of course the kind of energy that you say infects you when in conversation with Peter Gray is exactly what I find that you bring to every encounter or dialogue, Kirsten. The sense of wonder, and a curious questioning spirit are so critical to engagement. Often this isn’t recognized as “play,” but it is really born out of that playful spirit and world view isn’t it?

    As a child in school. I loved playing almost anything. I loved being tricky and clever, and developing and refining effective strategies. I remember my 8th grade math class spent the whole year focused on gamesmanship, probability, statistics and strategies embedded in games. I also loved providing winning opportunities for others, teammates. I was a strong “point guard” in basketball, and captain of my high school team, because I was good at creating chances for others to score. There’s a lot of creativity involved in good play, I think. Fortunately or not, I always lacked my dad’s “killer instinct” that was required to achieve the next level of success. (He played professional soccer in England – just a little competitive. Heh.)

    As an aside, It’s Interesting to think about the role of implied or overt competition embedded in play. In general I think the whole model of schooling is way too competitive. As a teacher, I try to de-emphasize competition and encourage cooperation and collaboration. We play a lot of cooperative games and participate in collaborative initiatives when we need a PE kind of physical release. But I also think a dash of implied competition can be added to play, that gives a positive charge to the activity. What do you think?

    I think I have chosen to work with kids as my profession in no small part because of their unique capacities and gifts to play, and see the world through a playful lens. As I now work increasingly with adults I try, often in vain, to bring that same playful spirit with me.

    Thanks for the post, Kirsten. Tell us more about your think tank work some time.


    Posted by Paul Freedman | March 13, 2012, 10:06 am
  5. Hey Paul, This helps me again get a view into you…loving being tricky and strategizing about how to help other’s score. You’re still like that…

    I’ve thought about what you say a lot, that for many of us, the opportunity to be with children as teacher, or as parents, is about putting us in playful states of mind, where we as adults can maximize our own learning, along with them. I know I feel incredibly playful when I am hanging with my children, who have been my best teachers.

    I’m also so aware of when I have to claim expertise, in a conventional sense, that can shut down playfulness. What does that say about conventional teaching?

    Thank you for your comments. I wish our COOP members were in this think tank!


    Posted by Kirsten | March 13, 2012, 11:02 am
  6. Hey, I’m a hoya. What is this leadership coaching program you speak of?

    Posted by Self-Confidence | March 13, 2012, 11:46 am
  7. Oh, that is so cool! Thanks!!! I know Georgetown does a lot of leadership stuff, but I had no idea they did something through the ICF. 🙂

    What I do? Right now I am just in the business of coaching myself, heh. Want to start coaching others at some point, maybe get certified, too.

    Posted by Self-Confidence | March 15, 2012, 5:43 pm

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