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?