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Learning at its Best

Why Do We Need to Play? (My #rechat Reflection)

The kids are in the backyard blowing bubbles. The canister reads Miracle Bubbles and it seems, at first, like hyperbole. Joel pulls out the wand and creates a floating orb. Brenna jumps up and pops the first one in delight. Micah pulls out a wand (a fitting word for the magic that happens) and asks if blowing it slower will make the bubbles bigger or smaller.

This leads to a test of small and large bubbles and eventually an impromptu game happens to see how many bubbles they can pop without having to re-dip the wand. Next, they argue about what would happen if they changed the size and shape of the wand. We might just need to bend wires or paperclips to test out this theory later.

Miracle Bubbles.

Okay, it still sounds a bit like hyperbole. But I’m struck by the amount of learning that goes on in a short period of time – and that, the act of of play, feels, somehow magical. The same is true of the sidewalk chalk games and the imaginative painting and the story-telling they engaged in earlier this morning.

They’re learning through play.

I’m not sure how to define play. I’m not sure when engagement and learning become play. I think imagination, creativity, interactivity have something to do with it. But I’m not sure that my kids would even think to make the distinction in the first place. Play and learning are nearly synonymous. There is a playfulness to reading a National Geographic magazine and a seriousness to blowing bubbles.

I try to defend the concept of play by pointing out the functional aspects of play: increasing creativity, driving innovation, flexible thinking, paradoxical thinking, problem-solving, role-playing, social learning, authentic contexts, questioning (and inquiry in particular). I want to prove that play and career-readiness might go hand-in-hand, but I’m not so sure.

But as I watch them blowing bubbles in the backyard, I am struck by the fact that it’s not about being functional. Joel, Micah and Brenna would scoff at words like “driving innovation.” They’re playing, because that’s part of what it means to be human. It’s how we learn. It’s how interact. It is a human need and a human pleasure at the same time.

So, it has me thinking about the classroom. I find it sad that students have less permission to play as they grow into more naturally independent stages of development. Play is almost non-existent in middle school. Some see it as a waste of time. Others can’t reconcile it with rigid curriculum maps. Still, others  want to incorporate more play, but the testing culture gets in the way.

Initially, I find myself trying to prove the functionality of play. I want to prove that it “works.” But the truth is, I want students to play, because it is vital to how students learn. It may or may not come in handy in a job someday. But that’s not the point. We need to play, because we are human and that’s a part of how humans learn.

About John Spencer

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


5 thoughts on “Why Do We Need to Play? (My #rechat Reflection)

  1. I am High School teacher and teach Food Technology as well as Child Studies. I have often reflected on the need of toddlers and young children to play for their social and cognitive development (and taught it as well). However, I have never considered the same concept for older children. Thank you for posting, it has given me something to think about!!!

    Posted by bennybean96 | December 29, 2012, 5:57 pm
    • You will no doubt be interested in any and all of the *formal* research that has been done in the area of play and learning. It reinforces the observations of John Spencer and hundreds of millions of other parents and grandparents over the centuries who have come to (and enjoyed) the same conclusions. I think that the best place to start might be the blog of Peter Gray, developmental psychologist from Boston College and author of the forthcoming book “Free to Learn”. Such work will, I believe, eventually crack the prevailing (school-based) belief that learning equates with pain and drudgery–and that you can’t have one without the other. You can find Gray’s very readable blog at

      Posted by Peter A. Bergson | December 31, 2012, 9:09 am
  2. Yes, play for play’s sake. Ron Berger, in An Ethic of Excellence, says something similar about the kind of work he does with kids in his classroom: we need to develop a strong work/play ethic in kids not because it leads to increased test scores but because it creates citizens with strong character and ethics who value beautiful work. I may be paraphrasing and adlibbing here a bit but that is what I took away.

    Posted by Elisa Waingort | January 5, 2013, 9:48 am
  3. Thank you John for reframing play as not just an educational tool but a crucial part of being human. I agree with the idea that education must nurture human needs and not attempt to repress them.

    Posted by Joshua Block | January 23, 2013, 3:56 pm


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