Playful Learning, Reflection, and Possibility

Yesterday a fantabulous colleague and I presented — virtually — about maintaining play as a core learning resource as we move forward this school year. It was spectacular to dig into the research, and then enthusiastically share our findings and thoughts with one another. I never cease to be amazed by the power of play in our lives — whether we are kids or adults!

Classroom culture is a key component of play and playful learning. Collaborating with Maribel was the perfect example of that — she is a beautifully kind, joy-filled, and playful educator. Much of our time was spent laughing and saying “Oh yeah! And then we could do this …” Positivity, listening, sharing ideas, practicing “yes, and” and being willing to risk and play, made our time together super productive and enjoyable.

We talked a lot about our classroom culture. What does it look like? What does it feel like? How will it exist, change, or stay the same, if we aren’t together with our kids in the classroom.

How might we create — and help our students create — our classroom, culture, and community when we are separate from one another? Where are our bulletin boards to share art, ideas, work? How do we post our inspirational messages and quotes? If we are stripped of the comfort of our communal learning space how might we recreate it in our own individual homes? We’re all different, with different homes, different comfort levels regarding sharing, and different ideas of what is appropriate for school. How might we enable opportunities for equity and comfort within our own homes for ourselves, our students, and our students’ families?

We had so many questions — which felt a bit daunting — but we decided to look at them as opportunities.

As we speculated, I chuckled and mentioned Sesame Street: Elmo’s World News. Each of the muppet characters created their own cardboard set for the news cast. “Perhaps,” I suggested ” We could have our students make some sort of classroom background for themselves.”

“That’s perfect! Each student can create their own personal classroom at home. They’re doing that anyway, now they’ll actually make the walls,” said Maribel. “Everybody has boxes now. We don’t even have to buy anything!”

I didn’t have to buy anything, but I did have to rescue a box from the porch before the storm hit this week. So rescue I did. Then, in rescue mode, I noticed all the treasures hiding in my recycling bin. As Tropical Storm Isaias raged outside my windows, I got to work.

Occasionally the storm grew in intensity and pulled my attention away from the work at hand. But, for the most part, creating my walls occupied me so fully that I was granted a respite from any worry about the storm. I experienced flow of playful learning as I wondered, thought, researched, drew, painted, measured, cut, folded, looked, tested, and reworked. It was a great experience of the power of play.

I had so much fun creating, thinking, tinkering, and making. And I must say I learned a lot — about construction, possibility, perspective, and much more. Here are my homemade classroom walls.

All that’s missing is me!

I chuckled at just how much it is me. Even in the classroom I rarely if ever put colored paper or boarders on the bulletin boards. I want the student work to be the highlight and pops of color. I much prefer making things to using store bought things. I’m always intrigued by various types of design and engineering one can do with paper and paper like products, and I love making unexpected connections. Even my laptop stand and table were improvisations — a stack of canvases and my ironing board!

As I sat in front of my homemade classroom walls, and watched myself present for the virtual workshop, I was reminded of some of my Kindergarten learners who were anxious about this unusual method of being together. They were only able to join us on our synchronous calls if they were participating from within their cardboard box fort. We established a few rules, and it worked remarkably well. But, as I saw myself surrounded by cardboard I thought — Wow! Talk about a great equalizer. If I had thought about this in the spring we could have all been in our cardboard creations together.

As I created, I realized there are a zillion ways to use this for playful learning at any age or ability level. Here are some of my thoughts:

Differentiate the possibilities for age, ability, and purpose. Which of the following would you encourage?
* only color
* color and decorations
* words or sentences
Imagine the possibilities for learning through the play of making the background. Might you encourage engineering exploration and problem finding/solving?
* Add 3 dimensional elements – shelves, containers, doors, drawers, or a spinner.
* Create the 3D elements using found objects.
* Create the 3D elements from scratch.
* Create the 3D elements from a combination of found objects and from scratch.
Imagine the possibilities for assessment through the play of making the background. How might our learners show what they know and have learned with their background? I am finding a ton of thought provoking ideas for this from Tony Ryan’s Thinkers Keys.
* Create a background that represents a particular artist without specific artwork or name.
* Create a set to use for a video presentation showcasing learning.

A large part of my playful learning happened because I reflected upon my thought and working processes. Sometimes I think we as educators give the impression that fast work, done well the first try, is somehow the goal. But, I find it’s in the iterations, failures, research, struggle, and problem finding/solving that I experience the most joy, satisfaction, and learning. So, I’m going to encourage my learners to reflect and document their own process — including the ways they failed, and failed forward.

Enabling our learners to engage in reflection and documentation will add to their experience, and our understanding of them. Don’t let their age or ability stop you or them. There are so many ways they can document — photos, writing, recording videos. It’ll be great. I promise.

The Power of Language

Lately I’ve been struck by the profound power of language.

Last night at a mindfulness session someone pointed out the difference between saying: “I am a worrier!” and “I am experiencing worry.”

Do you hear a difference? Do you feel one? They are very similar statements, but the small variations cause large differences in meaning and impact.

The first statement says something about me, and therefore about the possibility of my actions or thoughts. I AM a worrier. If I am a worrier, I have no choice. I worry. If, instead, I am experiencing worry, I have choices. I can notice the worry. I can observe it. I can choose to turn towards the worry and learn from it. I can choose to do something to alleviate it. Or, I can worry, lol.

The point is, the change in my language opens possibilities for me! It gives me options. It creates space to be, and to do.

I share the worry example because it helped me to understand my experience of another rather subtle change in language.

I’m writing an article on creativity and leadership. My editor suggested I change “How might we?” to “How can we?”

What do you think? Say the questions to yourself a few times. What do you experience when you read the questions? Do you notice a difference? Do you have pull or preference for on or the other?

I definitely experience the questions differently, and I have a clear preference!

I am experiencing — in my life and in my practice — that the power of “How might we?” far exceeds the power of “How can we?” Sounds a bit crazy, right? But, it’s not!

“How can we?” offers two options: we can, or, we can’t. That’s it. Too often, when given the choice of can, or can’t we choose can’t.

I can’t do that! I can’t walk a half marathon! I can’t solve that problem. I can’t write a story. I can’t do a multimedia presentation. I can’t pass this test.  I’m not able. There is no way. (sigh)

If we avoid the “I can’t!” quagmire. We may fall into the “I don’t know” trap because”How can we?” suggests we are looking for the correct way to do whatever we are doing. If the person being questioned is at all unsure, this often leads to the answer: “I don’t know.”

In both instances — “I can’t” and “I don’t know” — the problem remains unsolved understanding stagnates, learning is limited, and, perhaps, most tragically, the one questioned is now more convinced than ever that they really don’t know, and they really can’t .

20161102_100801

In contrast, “How might we?” is more flexible and less prescriptive. “How might we?” invites divergent thinking, allowing us to go wide with our answers. Even the uncertain can offer ideas because the “rightness” of the answer is not demanded.

Often the answers which fail, are more valuable than those that immediately succeed. They allow us — demand it actually — to reflect, examine, explore, talk, learn and try again. In this process many positive things happen. To name just a few:

  • Understanding (of ideas, materials, students, ourselves, others) deepens.
  • New strategies emerge.
  • Trust, confidence and relationships grow.
  • Thinking and ideas are valued.
  • New ideas are formed.

The power of simple changes in language is intriguing. I’m super excited by the possibilities of HMW questions, and am working on using them more often in my life, and in my practice.

Give them a try. If you do, I’d love to hear your reflections.