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Leadership and Activism, Learning at its Best

Creating Places for Play

I thought about making videos. I thought about starting a Bring Back Recess Tumblr. I’m still going to lobby locally – at my school, within my neighborhood, among my state representatives. However, I’m also going to play. Everywhere. I’m going to push to preserve places of play. (See, alliterative word play right there)

A Place to Play: Where I Can Create Spaces

At School: As a teacher, I can develop loosely structured projects, independent assignment, murals, documentaries and whimsical writing prompts to help us recover the sense of spontaneity, of autonomy, of creativity and even depth involved in play. I’m still on this journey. Lately, I’ve been seeing more and more value in gaming and in things like debates being part of the natural need to play. I’m just now starting to understand how existential play can be.

In My Neighborhood: When we first moved here, there were no kids playing in the front yards. Christy started playing with our kids and slowly invited neighbors to pull up a lawn chair and join us.

As a Dad: I can play with my kids. Whether it’s a game of catch or hide-and-seek or a video game or a science experiment, I can play. I can give space for autonomy and let them do sidewalk chalk drawings away from me and I can re-engage with them, too. I can tell stories with them (still loving Micah’s story about the turkey raised by dragons) and I can help them see the fun in some of the more mundane experiences in life.

Online: I know it sounds strange, but I consider blogging and tweeting as a place to play. Sometimes it’s simple wordplay or satire (#pencilchat) and sometimes it’s the sense of connection through meaningful dialogue. Play pushes me to take myself less seriously while also going deeper and taking risks. Play allows me to be vulnerable online.

Community: I can fight for play through hashtags #letkidsplay and blog posts, but I am slowly getting to know members of my community who have a voice in creating and protecting spaces for play. Some of it is much more structured than I would have seen myself being (I want the state to increase recess time at schools) and others are much more philosophical (helping fellow teachers see the need for play in the school system).

Paradigm Shifts: How I’m Re-Learning How to Play

Embrace the Mess: I don’t need a pristine yard. I’d rather have kids who are allowed to dig. I don’t need a spotless family room. We’ll disassemble the Lego village tonight (through the meteor shower we create) and recreate it tomorrow. As a teacher, I’m still learning how to encourage projects that will create a certain level of noise and chaos that make me feel a little anxious at first.

More Time: When I was a kid, we were whisked away to various leagues, clubs and church functions. I would be working on my own projects (writing a chapter book, designing a baseball stadium, creating a version of three-man baseball) and suddenly feel rushed. Right now, one of my kids is in baseball. I allowed him to join, because he prompted it and because I trust the coach.

Encourage Mistakes: One of my favorite aspects of video games is the notion of unlimited lives. Do-overs are welcomed. The same is true of Play Dough and blocks and water colors. There’s an odd paradox at work in that kids learn to take risks when they know they are safe, but they become risk-averse when they are constantly corrected.  As a teacher, I can shift from grading to feedback and from “do this now” to “work toward mastery.”

Welcome Questions: Joel asked me why the leaves were falling. I threw the question back and him and he developed two hypotheses – a lack of light and a lack of warmth. We observed and we tested and yet . . . there were no write-ups, no worksheets, no formalized process. I want to embrace the questions, both the why and the how.

Balance: Standardization is all about a rigid, conformist set of structures. Play involves paradox: the will of the group and the will of the individual, cooperation and competition, rules and anarchy, structure and freedom, creativity and analytical thinking, fluid and static. Play is holistic.

Openness: This is the biggest thing. Learning not to think too hard about play and just . . . well, play. My own kids have helped me to learn to dance again and sing again. The freedom to do something that might sound dumb is deeply rooted in the idea of play.


About John Spencer

I teach. I write. I live. I want to do all three authentically.


5 thoughts on “Creating Places for Play

  1. I love the initiatives and conditions here. I think about my life and classroom all the time (can my avatar be a space?). I wonder how the idea of “workshop” flips work into play. How does a workshop-life look? How does workshop learning look? How does a workshop classroom look?

    Can you talk more about how play has impacted your writing? How do these conditions relate to your writing in general, John, and specifically to your sense of purpose and use of multiple voices?

    Best regards,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | March 18, 2012, 7:55 pm
    • I love your question about writing. With regard to blogging, I think the notion of play and perhaps the paradox wrapped in it has allowed me to take chances, be creative and run forward without a fear of failure. I’ve had blogs that I started and abandoned and that’s okay. I’ve been able to do some goofy things (Ditch that Word, satire, pencil integration blog) because of this sense of play. But I think this has also allowed me to write in different styles or genres or whatever and not worry about it sounding professional.

      Ultimately, this sense of recovering play has allowed me to go back to writing fiction. I write a lot of poetry these days – though I never go public with it. I’ve written two novels and I’m thinking of writing a third. The death of play coincided with the death of my creative writing impulse (back in high school and college). So, the permission to play, to see things differently, to be creative, have ultimately allowed me to be a writer.

      Posted by John T. Spencer | March 19, 2012, 11:14 am
  2. John, The specificity here is great! I’m with you on all this: notice playing, engage in playful activity that’s already going on (just jump in!), start to play more myself everywhere I can. Being messy and not knowing. Fun.

    Thank you for your awesome observing and bravery,


    Posted by Kirsten Olson | March 19, 2012, 7:57 am


  1. Pingback: On ‘Being’ Creative « Jerin P. - March 18, 2012

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