Play is Fun and Powerful

The Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, and the Toy Association  collaborated to host a Genius of Play event at the Smithsonian on April 25th. I had the distinct joy of being asked to be one of the panelists! Of course, I accepted.

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The panelists included:

Vikas Gupta — Co-founder and CEO of Wonder Workshop, and maker of the award-winning Dash, Dot and Cue robots. James McLurkin —  Inventor and Senior Hardware Engineer at Google. Jeri Robinson — Vice President of Early Childhood Initiatives at the Boston Children’s Museum. And, Me, Molly James — Creativity Researcher, and Kindergarten Teacher at Kent Place School.

Our conversation on the panel centered on play and its place in learning and schools, creativity, and innovation.

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Have you ever considered how you would define play?

I am always thinking about play and creativity, but for the weeks preceding the panel, I did so with increased attention. I observed my students, and noticed all the remarkable insights, skills, discoveries, and joys they experienced as they played. I read articles, thought, and chatted with fellow creatives.

At times, as if it were to keep my head from exploding, I would have to write. I would write streams of consciousness, questions, wonderings, ideas, and things to look up. With those thoughts safely recorded in my notebook, my brain seemed free for new ideas and questions. This continued for many cycles.. Then, on the train to DC, and at breakfast the morning of the event, several things became crystal clear.

As I rode the train, I wondered how I would succinctly express my ideas. I could talk about play and creativity forever, but how could I do it as part of a panel, in a few sound bites? I decided to see what the dictionary had to say about  play.

I was shocked. I hadn’t read the definitions previously because I didn’t want to risk plagiarizing any of their ideas. I wanted my definition to be my own — from my own experience and research as an educator, and a person who plays. After reading the definitions, I realized there was no chance I’d be stealing their words.

The definitions I found were remarkably different from mine. They made play sound frivolous, purposeless, and unimportant. Nothing was further from what I believe to be the truth.

With these definitions as the way play is explained and understood, it’s no wonder it’s sometimes difficult to convince others of the significance of play in life, learning, creativity, and innovation. I would LOVE the dictionaries to have a definition of play that more correctly explains its essence, and highlights its importance. I wonder how one goes about getting a definition in the dictionary changed?

While perhaps not short enough for an entry in Merriam Webster, or dictionary.com, here is what I consider a much more accurate and appropriate definition of play.

Play is a fun and powerful way of interacting with the world — with people, things, thoughts, and ideas. The fun of play is a large part of its power. When we play we laugh, we let go of worry, we fret less, and we breathe more.  This helps our brains — regardless of our ages or tasks — be more open and able to explore possibilities, entertain new ideas, and learn. When we play we are so much more willing to take risks — and even when we fail, we discover that failure isn’t the end, instead it’s the opportunity to begin the game again — stronger and smarter!

I was not alone in that understanding. All the panelists shared experiences and beliefs in the importance and power of play for all ages — at home, work, and school. It was great to hear such a unified message from a panel of people with very different backgrounds and occupations.

There were so many other great thoughts and ideas presented and discussed about the importance of play. When the video is posted on the Smithsonian page I will blog again and link to it.

The whole event  — arriving early and chatting with Jeri; meeting Monica, James, and Vikas; laughing and sharing our hopes to “not sound like idiots”; the receptions; and the panel itself — was spectacular. There was a ton of brilliance, thinking, collaboration, humility, awesomeness, laughter, honesty, passion, and playfulness on that stage.

Being part of this panel for the  Innovative Lives Series helped me to more fully embrace my expertise and fantabulousness! I presented with the big boys and girls, and in the process, I discovered, I am one of them!

 




Post script:

May 2014 I earned my MA Creative Thinking. A little over a year later, I had this blog, and a published paper. Four years later, an invitation to the Smithsonian.

Wow!

Gotta give a huge shout out to Karl K. Jeffries and his program at UCLan!  You, Karl, are a spectacular mentor, and creative thinker. And, a huge thank you to the many others who walk this creative, playful, fantabulous journey with me. I’m incredibly grateful!

 

 

 

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Label Your Build

Labeling is part of every build in our classroom. Sometimes my request for labeling is met with a bit of grumbling. “Labels? Do we have to label? Why do we have to label things, Miss James?”

I always respond the same way. “Yes, you have to label things. Everyone find at least three things to label.” and “Why label?!?!!! You have to label things because when you label them, everyone else gets to know and understand your great ideas and creations!” Once they get over the need to stop building in order to label, and any hesitancy they have in their ability to write things that others can read, the labels begin popping up all over the build site.

Here are a few from this year’s Thanksgiving build.

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(bed, home)

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(bed, pillow, home)

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(food place)

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(person, Lilly)

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(mountain)

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(person)

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(crib)

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(trap door)

There’s tons of value in each of their labels. I can assess their phonemic awareness, and their ability to encode the sounds they hear. I get a deeper understanding of their thinking and building. And, perhaps best of all, they get to share their thinking and work with everyone who visits the build.

My favorite thinking shared this year (and mind you, they are ALL fantabulous and bring me great joy) was this one.

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(For you, Mayflower. This corn is for you.)

We learn that the passengers of the Mayflower stole corn from the Native Americans. At first, the girls respond with outrage. “That wasn’t very nice! Why did they do that? That’s mean!” I acknowledge their observations and feelings, agreeing that it does sound mean, and not very nice. But then, I encourage them to think a bit about what the passengers of the Mayflower might have felt — and what we sometimes experience in our own lives.

“How do you think the Mayflower passengers felt when they arrived?” I ask. “They were on the boat for 66 days. The Mayflower wasn’t very big and there were a lot of passengers.” My students are silent, clearly trying to figure things out. They begin to share their recollections and thoughts — “There were storms. People died. A baby was born. Maybe they didn’t have enough food. They were probably cold. Maybe they were hungry.”

One asks “Why didn’t they just ask the Native Americans for some food?”

“Good question.” I respond. “Why didn’t they?”

At first they are silent again. Then I ask them. “Did the Native Americans and the passengers of the Mayflower looked alike? Did they dress the same? Do you think they spoke the same language?” They quietly and thoughtfully respond “No.”

Now I am silent. For a moment or two I let them sit with that information. Then I ask them “How do you think they felt?” With a greater of empathy they respond, “Maybe they were scared.” I shake my head, “Yeah, maybe they were scared.” Wanting to bring the two ideas together, I continue “It wasn’t nice what they did. They shouldn’t have stolen the corn, but it’s good for us to remember they might have been afraid, and hungry, and didn’t know what else to do.”

When the girl made those bags of corn, she showed them to me. “I decided to make these for the Mayflower. I’m going to leave them by the boat so they see them. Then they can just have this corn, and not steal ours.” I responded, “That’s a great idea. I bet they’ll be happy to find it.”

There is so much I love about her thoughts and work. Kindness. Empathy. Problem-solving. Offering without being asked. Leaving it with a note — therefore forgoing a thank you. Believing this will help them, and keep them from taking your things — without telling them not to take yours. Lastly, I love that the build, and the labeling, allowed this student to show the depth her understanding, empathy, kindness, and problem solving. May she keep it, grow it, and use it all her days!

The Magic of Ideas

I love the book What Do You Do With An Idea by Kobi Yamada and Mae Besom. The illustrations are wonderful and add a profound depth that is accessible to all. If you haven’t read it yet, find a copy and read it! You won’t be disappointed.

Perhaps even better would be to read it with some children. Each time I read it to my class, they notice new things in the illustrations, and make unique connections and wonderings. They encourage me to open my eyes, mind, and heart, a bit wider, stay in the moment, and notice all there is to see.

I read the book aloud – stopping often for their eager noticing, sharing, wondering, conversing and questioning. It took us almost 30 minutes to read the book! We talked a lot about ideas – having ideas, feeding them, sometimes being afraid to share them, sometimes sharing our ideas freely, listening to other ideas, getting inspired by other people’s ideas, and, changing the world with our ideas!

I asked if they thought their ideas could change the world. There was a mixed response. Some thought yes, some no, and some were unsure. I told them I believed their ideas DO change the world. I asked them if they had every helped a friend who was sad, or if they had problem-solved with a friend. Of course, they all had. I continued, saying “Those ideas you shared when your friend was sad, and when you needed answers, helped right? So, they changed the world for that person and for you!”

I grabbed a notebook I carry in my bag, and shared some things I jot down – words, thoughts, ideas, images. Then I pulled out the small notebooks I made my students. The covers were decorated with circles and dots. Some were connected, some only partially formed, some mixing colors, some were off by themselves – just like our ideas. Finally I set my kids free to begin to fill their books with their thoughts, plans, imaginings, and visions.

Here are some of their ideas …

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  • Design and make dog clothes.
  • Make a big computer that converts into a small laptop

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  • Finger knit a headband like Caileigh’s.
  • I make board games.

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  • She will build a tower too. She’ll also build a bike.
  • Make a company. Make a new way to read.

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  • Make a blanket for Pikachu (finger knit).
  • Be myself. Dream big.

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  • Nothing can stop you from doing the thing you love.
  • I will always do crafts and drawing, even when I am angry.

Fabulous, right?

They cracked me up at the end of the time (about 30 minutes). I was wandering around telling them we had 5 more minutes, talking with them about their ideas, and taking photos. At some point I sat down, to chat or look at something more closely. The next thing I knew, I was surrounded by a circle of students – probably 2-3 deep at points – all saying “I have an idea, Miss James!” It was an incredible surge of joyful energy.

It was magical and wonderful!