Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

You are here

Play in the College Classroom

GraceNL's picture

            Play. At first glance, play is a seemingly silly topic to be talking about in a serious college course. It certainly seemed that way when my Emily Balch Seminar (ESem) class first transitioned to that topic. Coming out of what I considered ‘serious’ college topics, the idea of studying play certainly came as a shock. But after reading the assigned articles and beginning to discuss them in class I began to see what makes play so important.

            In one of the first articles we discussed, “Taking Play Seriously”, Robin Marantz Henig discusses the idea “… that play contributes to the growth of more supple, more flexible brains” (Henig 8). Henig discusses the possibility of play as an opportunity to learn valuable skills for the future. She discusses the idea of play in children as only one means to an end. In her article, Henig cites a biologist by the name of Patrick Bateson who says, “playing when young is not the only way to acquire knowledge and skills; the animal can delay acquisition until it is an adult” (Henig 10). Henig than goes on to say that even Bateson would agree that “… play is often the best way to reach certain goals” (Henig 9). Why? Because there is a difference between being taught something and learning through experience.

            That is why play is so important. Play gives children the opportunity for experiential learning. So why is it than as a person progresses in age the way in which we are educated transitions from learning through experience to the act of simply being taught?

            This got me thinking. Here we are in our ESem class simply being taught about what play is. Instead of just talking about play we should try playing ourselves. But how is play going to fit into our serious class?

            That’s when I realized that play isn’t limited to our traditional notions of what play is, it is so much more. The actual definition of play, according to the online Oxford dictionary, is to “engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose”. But for many people, when they picture play they picture kids running around on a playground or kids playing with toys. Play is much more than that. Play can be all about fun and games but it can be also be about forming connections with those in your social group. Playing in a classroom setting can be as simple as changing locations and changing the dynamic of the group. So that’s how play would fit into my ESem class. My Esem class is all about “Changing our Stories” and our interactions among each other and the environment in which we exist.

            So at the end of that first day of discussing play in my ESem class I went up to my professor, Anne Dalke, and asked her if during the next class we could go out and play, both in the traditional sense and the non-traditional sense. Anne agreed to my idea and the very next class rather than meeting within the confines of our classroom we met outside on the grass.

             At my suggestion, and with Anne’s permission, we started off the class with a name game. This allowed us to experience a form of traditional play while getting to know each other better. But what impacted our group the most was playing with our change of environment.

            When we switched from the traditional classroom setting to a space not defined as traditional our group dynamic changed. This new space hosted a whole new world of distractions for us to worry about. While in our classroom we were enclosed by the four walls and relatively cut off from the rest of the world, outside in this new location we were open to the interruptions of life. There were new noises, new sights, more chances for someone outside our class to come and interrupt our class work. But I believed we handled these distractions with relative ease. Yes, sometimes someone would come along and say “hi” to someone in the class. Yes, the birds were chirping and the world’s noises were more prevalent to us. Yes, it was easier for us to get distracted. But I believe that as a class we kept it together and the benefits of this new experience greatly outweighed the disadvantages.

            Something else that changed when we changed locations was our physical arrangement in accordance to one another. In both locations we sat in a circle, but in the classroom we sat in desks while outside the classroom we all sat together on the ground. While in both instances we were on an ‘even playing field’, in the classroom we were much more confined. The physicality of the desks separated us. We were each on our own little island in the ocean of our classroom. But when we moved outside the classroom that changed. When we all sat on the ground together we were no longer separated by some barriers, we were one as a group.

            I believe that once we were released from the confines of the classroom we became closer as a group. We have held class in different locations only a few days now but I can already see how we are becoming more willing and comfortable to share. I feel that by exiting the traditional classroom setting we have opened up the opportunity for a whole new level of experiential learning and group dynamics.

            This application of play in the educational setting shouldn’t just be limited to my ESem class. Playing in any class could be beneficial to the education of individuals of all ages. By playing, classes could change how people learn from being taught to experiential learning. That’s not to say that the same type of play would work in every classroom setting. Depending on subject, group dynamic, and other variables, play would have to be individualized to fit that class’s needs and wants. But overall, I believe that through play the level to which one learns increases.

            In Henig’s paper, among humans, she focuses on play among children. I agree with her that play is an essential part of the learning processes for children. But I expand that to say, play is as essential to the adult learning experience as it is to children’s learning experience.    


Works Cited:

Henig, Robin, Taking Play Seriously, New York Times (Feb. 17, 2008).