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Learning at its Best

The Paradox of Play

Christy and I are picking orange blossoms. Unlike the desert plants, the blossoms don’t affect my allergies one bit. Between the heavy scent and the thrill of dodging bees, it is hard to imagine that anything else exists in our world beyond the moment. We are lost in a creative endeavor of gathering, smelling and eventually transforming the blossoms into orange blossom oil.

The kids make “water works” by spraying the hose in different directions, using various objects to obstruct the projectile. As the clouds roll in, I’m wondering if it is too cold for water play. (Somewhere around seventy degrees — cold in Phoenix terms)

My suspicions are neither confirmed nor denied when I dry off a shivering two-year old. The outdoors were eerily silent. I forgot about the powerful trifecta of March Madness (gambling meets Cinderella mythology meets competition).

I’m sure the tournament is amazing. I’m sure it is shocking when an underdog from a tiny college in Nowheresville pulls of an upset. But it’s also amazing when the trees explode in blossoms and the grass sprouts out of the mud and just as you thought that the darkness would win, the light offers its annual hope.

And we play.



Barefoot in my backyard.

When I first got married, I still didn’t understand play as anything more than an escape. I liked creativity, but I liked regimented creativity. Book lists. Spreadsheets of blog posts per day. Christy has been the one to help me see that play isn’t something one should grow out of. Whether it’s doing 40 Days of Living Facebook or dancing in the living room or picking orange blossoms when bees are all around – she’s the one who has reminded me that play is vital to life.

And yet . . . Christy takes life more serious than me. She understands that to be truly responsible, to know mortality, to wrestle with hard existential questions means embracing the idea of play.

Paradox of Play

  • Static and Fluid: the game evolves and sometimes even the rules evolve and yet, there is always a structure, a guiding idea or a set of values that remain constant
  • Belonging to a Group and Being an Individual: whether it’s fighting a pretend dragon or playing a game of tag, the will of the group and the will of the individual are in constant tension (and sometimes balance)
  • Cooperation and Competition: Play can be one or the other or both. That’s the beauty of it.
  • Intrinsic and Extrinsic: sometimes it’s the joy of the moment and other times it is the results of the process
  • Rules and Anarchy: I love the negotiation of rules and norms on a playground. I used to think that was a waste of time, but now I get it. They’re learning how to relate.
  • Imagination and Sensory Reality: play is a bridge between fiction and non-fiction
  • Creative and Analytical Thinking: when I watch my sons water color or hit a baseball, there are moments of new ideas and other times of deep analysis of what’s currently happening
  • Present and Future: play (and games, in particular) let us rehearse our future reality in advance and yet they are also appropriate for the current age and development

About John Spencer

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


4 thoughts on “The Paradox of Play

  1. I’m a big fan of paradox and occupying ambiguous spaces. I don’t see how we can play or experience joy without them (choice needs possibility; wonder needs the mundane), and it bugs me something fierce that schools insist we can be happy without happiness, or that we don’t need play or joy now; that we can have those things after we become “successful” adults. That there is never a time to see what happens if we eat both marshmallows at once; that there is never a solution in which we find, eat, wage war, and build worlds with all the damn marshmallows we want while the suits backs are turned.

    The delay of gratification is a tactic for getting ahead of the people experiencing gratification now. The paradox and ambiguity here are in how little both groups care about what the others are doing.

    And I’m sure that leaves us somewhere.

    Posted by Chad Sansing | March 18, 2012, 7:51 pm
  2. Beautiful

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | March 19, 2012, 8:17 am
  3. Play play play! Love the rules and anarchy in particular. I loved being on playground duty as a teacher and watching this… it has an other worldliness! Magic happening.

    Posted by 2flowerslearn | March 21, 2012, 10:14 am

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