Monthly Archives: December 2011

Inquiring into Play – Part II

As I mentioned in my last post, I decided to use a recent Washington Post article by Alfie Kohn discussing his thoughts on How children’s ‘play’ is being sneakily redefined to inquire within and “aloud” about some of my thoughts on play. Below are my reflections on his last two propositions (listed in bold).

4. The point of play is that it has no point.

This fourth idea is one I feel like simultaneously celebrating and questioning. It seems hard to dispute the value of defining play as a “process, not product” and allowing it to have no other goal than play itself yet play can produce amazing “products” (e.g., cognitive learning, social development), right? But maybe I’m conflicted about this for reasons similar to Kohn and the desire to promote increased play by hailing its positive benefits. Maybe I too am sneakily trying to redefine play as something like “self-initiated cognitive activity” in order to help it survive in our schools and educational contexts. Maybe redefining play to try and promote it is the wrong approach and for all of my good intentions in promoting play, I too am pushing for its relabeling instead of fighting for the intrinsic value of play, regardless of its related benefits in learning and development for people of all ages.

5. Play isn’t the only alternative to “work.” 

I was intrigued by the assertion that in addition to work and play, there is learning (“whose primary purpose is neither play-like enjoyment nor work-like competition of products”). It reminded me of another play article I read recently by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) about “Debunking the Play vs. Learning Dichotomy.” In the article, Dr. Snow argues that “maintaining the dichotomy between play and instruction is a distraction” and that we need to examine play and learning together and explore (play?) with finding a balance between them in the classroom. I don’t believe Kohn is arguing for an either/or mentality but he does seem to be suggesting that there can be a clear distinction between play and learning. I wonder how separate the concepts can and should be? If we use the perspective discussed in the NAEYC article above and define play as an activity leading to and producing benefits like increased creativity and problem solving skills, does it still fit Kohn’s requirement for “pure play”?

All of these thoughts also reminded me of a recent article in Psychology Today about “the roles of play and curiosity as foundations for learning” and the question of “evolutionary mismatch.” Has all of the controversy over play arisen because of how much our schools have changed and the mismatch between our inherent desire to be self-directed, curious, and playful running up against standardized curricula and pressure to direct students’ learning?

As is often the case, my inquiry has lead to further questions and areas for now deeper inquiry but I hope others will add their thoughts and we can explore these ideas together. “Play is hard to maintain as you get older. You get less playful. You shouldn’t, of course” (R. Feynman – Physicist). Play might be hard to maintain but I think fighting to maintain it in our lives and in our children’s lives is important and if we use children as our inspiration I think we can all find ways to bring more play into our daily lives. 🙂


Inquiring into Play – Part I

 Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.
~Fred Rogers

Play is a topic I always enjoy returning too and it’s something that has been popping up on my digital radar a lot in the past month or so. I also recently discovered a blog that encourages educators to “inquire within“. I really appreciate this sentiment because as an educator I think it can be easy to get lost in your work teaching or researching and slowly let the inquiry begin to fade away. So I’ve decided to use a recent Washington Post article by Alfie Kohn discussing his thoughts on How children’s ‘play’ is being sneakily redefined to inquire within and “aloud” about some of my thoughts on play.

Kohn made five propositions on the subject of play (the first three are listed below in bold), all of which I found very thought provoking, so I decided to split my thoughts and questions about them into two post (post #2 coming soon!) to allow more room for inquiry and discussion.

1. “Play” is being sneakily redefined.

I have seen classrooms where “play” has slowly transitioned into planned, curriculum-inspired and teacher-directed activities. Instead of allowing children the freedom to express their ideas and creative energy, we’re asking them to funnel that energy into specific activities that we, or our curriculum books or state standards, have labeled appropriate and productive for children’s learning and development. Our focus has shifted (although maybe this isn’t such a recent shift?) to achievement and results, to finding ways to demonstrate how our children are scoring and some would argue, to label children so that we can categorize them and even, at times, create hierarchies of knowledge.

In a course for my master’s program we have been discussing the merits of critical educational psychology (Bird, 1999) and the need to integrate different cultural values and practices into our views of education and childhood (as well as the assessments that we use) (Burman, 2010). I want to problematize the idea that we can so easily use standardized objectives and measurements to determine a child’s level of development and learning and their related opportunities for play. Do these achievement-oriented activities that are now labeled “play” and related assessments truly support the diversity of contexts (e.g., cultural, linguistic) that children are bringing to the classroom? If not, how can we better incorporate that diversity in the classroom while also allowing Kohn’s “pure play” to regain its place at the center of classroom activity?

2. Younger and older children ought to have the chance to play together.

After traveling through Italy and seeing multi-age early childhood classrooms influenced by the views of Montessori and Reggio Emilia, this idea of having younger and older children playing (and learning) together definitely resonates with me. Although I know there can be difficult challenges with trying to manage a classroom and the learning goals of children in a mixed-age class, with the right support, I think it can be really beneficial for both the younger and older children involved. Which makes me wonder, what would it be like in school if there were more interaction between grades? What if collaboration between a first and fifth grade class or a preschool and an upper grade class, was the norm?

3. Play isn’t just for children.

Thank goodness! I would be quite disappointed if play were just reserved for kids. I think the idea that “play, or something quite close to it, should be part of a teenager’s or adult’s life” is not as problematic as how we make play a daily part of our lives, whatever our age. When we’ve spent so much time separating “play” from “work” and even “learning”, it’s challenging to try and remind employers and ourselves about the benefits of play and to find ways to integrate play in our day-to-day activities. And how do we encourage the children we teach to value play in this way?

What do you think of Kohn’s first three propositions? What are your thoughts on play? I’ll try to post thoughts on the last two propositions soon!


Bird, L. (1999). Towards a more critical educational psychology. Annual Review of Critical Psychology, 1, pp. 21-33.

Burman, E. (2010). Discourses of the child.  Deconstructing developmental psychology (pp. 67-84). London: Routledge.