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Blog Campaign, Leadership and Activism, Learning at its Best

Work and Play, Play and Work

“Play is the child’s work” is a line made famous by the early childhood educator, Maria Montessori.

I interpret that to mean many things. But perhaps most importantly I believe it to mean that through play, children – and I would say youth and adults, too – make meaning of their world. This idea is related, in my mind, to the iterative nature of learning. I think it’s not coincidental that we describe brainstorming and experimentation as “playing with ideas,” or that we say we’re “playing with language” when we draft and revise and draft again.

When I taught second grade, years ago, we had many ways in which we all could play. One involved large-ish wooden blocks in a variety of shapes, from one-foot-long skinny rectangles to short arches. We used the blocks as a choice-time activity in the mornings, and that led sometimes to entire cities being constructed from the builders’ imaginations. Other times, we incorporated the blocks into our instruction, like when we studied the Brooklyn Bridge.

In all cases, though, we built based on our previous experiences, built to embrace new ideas, built to experiment. Then tore down and started over again. Where play ended and work began, and vice versa, was seldom clear.

This is of course the story of a second grade classroom. It’s not like anyone is clamoring to put wooden block areas in middle or high school classrooms.

But I would say that some of us are clamoring to put the equivalent of wooden block areas in middle and high school classrooms. The desire to facilitate learning through game development and game design is one such push. Game development is dependent upon the creative impulse of play, as well as iterative design. The point, though, of learning programs like Scratch and GameStar Mechanic is not simply to develop games; rather, it’s to understand systems-thinking and possibly even build and create mechanisms for demonstrating knowledge about history and science and any other subject area.

These programs sit at the intersection of work and play.

I recently read an article about the Nintendo game designer Shigeru Miyamoto, known as the father of modern video games and famous as the creator of such seminal games as Donkey Kong and Super Mario Brothers.

Miyamoto is credited with wresting videogames away from the world of developers and programmers and implementing compelling narratives, ones that still resonate today. And where did he get those narratives? From his childhood playing: in caves, among streams, and in his mind’s eye.

Miyamoto told Sheff not only about the cave but about dares among his friends to make forays into neighbors’ basements and yards, or about a neighbor’s bulldog that would charge him each time he passed by, jerking on its chain, or about getting stuck high in a tree or wondering what was at the bottom of manholes. He filled his games with his childlike interpretation of the world as a carnival of quirky perils and hidden delights.

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It’s this interplay between play and work and work and play – like that which happens in  block areas, or in video game development, or during the negotiation of rules on the playground – that constitutes my kind of learning environment. And I think that might hold true for lots of kids, too.

About Paul Oh

I'm an educator, writer, sometime runner and soon-to-be dad. I work for the National Writing Project and get a chance to design, play, create and learn with other adults and, when I'm lucky, with kids.


3 thoughts on “Work and Play, Play and Work

  1. What guts the fun out of our US public education system is that separation of play and work that we systemically insist on from the beginning of kids’ “careers” at school. When fun is disallowed, we look elsewhere for belonging, freedom, and power, and we become ripe, uncritical targets for capitalism, competition, consumerism, wrapped up, as we are, in trying to meet a need that the Yankee shapers of school want us to believe is immoral.

    In the same ways we need to help kids rediscover inquiry and risk-taking in learning by embracing them ourselves, so, too, must we establish fun as a condition present in the classroom. Other places and other groups of adults and kids learning together already do this. The clock is running; the flag is up; schools are trailing and mired in mission creep into politics and markets.

    When do you start “Paul Oh’s Lifelong 2nd Grade Lab?” I’m in.

    Best regards,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | March 18, 2012, 7:36 pm
  2. I agree, Chad. I couldn’t have said it better.

    A related tragedy unfolding today is the tired and racist saw that play, experimentation and fun should be reserved for those who already have more than their fair share of educational privilege, who are already scoring well on standardized tests.

    Consider yourself Enrollee #1 in the Lifelong 2nd Grade Lab. (And if I don’t start a school with that name, I’m going to make that the title of my memoir.)

    Posted by Paul Oh | March 19, 2012, 2:59 pm
  3. If you really want to shake up the world, you can take students out to play for a WHOLE week :).

    I had to go overseas to do it, though…


    Posted by Janet Abercrombie | March 23, 2012, 5:48 am

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