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The Play's The Thing

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Since her discovery, Daiute has reanalyzed the audio tapes and conducted a similar study of a 5th grade class in a low-income, urban school. In both studies--supported by a grant from the Spencer Foundation--each student wrote a story, collaborated with others on a number of stories, and wrote a final story individually. Daiute compared writing samples before and after collaboration to monitor the students' improvement, and analyzed nearly 20,000 utterances made by 30 children over a threemonth period.

Regardless of their grade level or school setting, children "played'' as they collaborated roughly 35 percent of the time. And when the students later wrote on their own, the more playful partners wrote longer stories with more adjectives, embellished their characters and plots, and used vocabulary words and concepts that they probably hadn't tried before. "When you look back, it makes perfect sense,'' Daiute says. "What the play was doing was sparking their creativity.''

Daiute argues that play allows students to explore unfamiliar ground and engage in otherwise risky experimentation. They feel free to use words that they know, but have not fully mastered, without fear of embarrassing criticism. For example, after playful conversations, new vocabulary words, such as "ferocious,'' "nocturnal,'' "vicious,'' and "unconscious,'' showed up in the elementary school students' writing.

Further, play gives students the chance to test their knowledge of other subject matter. For example, in David and Roy's conversation about Lenny the Llama (inset), both boys experimented with an ecological concept that they covered in class: acid rain. It later became central to their story: Lenny left his home in South America because the acid rain in the Andes mountains turned his llama hair into a brightly colored punk Mohawk that would be acceptable only in Hollywood.

Daiute also found a direct correlation between how the students played and the way in which the students' writing improved. The playful exchanges between David and Roy focused heavily on vivid visual images. Consequently, one of the most dramatic improvements in David's writing was his use of imagery; in his last piece of writing, he describes a "pale white'' ghost "floating around'' a pet cemetery. His later writing also was marked by many quick plot turns-- one event after another--that reflected the boys' quick banter.

In another instance, two girls' play revolved around suggesting different ways of describing characters. "These kids didn't talk about adjectives,'' Daiute says. "They played with descriptive adjectives, and then more descriptive adjectives wound up in their final writing.''

As silly and tangential as the playing might seem, Daiute argues that it is constructive and could even be labeled as a form of "critical thinking.'' Play, she says, requires a manipulation of language, reality, and relationships based on principles that even the child may not be aware he or she is using. When a student suggests an ending to the story, and another student comes up with a playful alternative, the second child is saying, in essence, "I don't like that first idea, and there are specific reasons why; try this instead.''

"They are generating new alternatives in a playful way,'' Daiute says, "but underlying that is a lot of thinking, and even critical thinking, because they are not just accepting what the first person said.''

Daiute still recognizes the merit of planning and reflection, but she urges teachers to encourage playfulness as a basis for nudging students into more mature patterns of thought. "If we only allow children to talk about their ideas and writing in ways we prescribe,'' she has written, "we may not be giving them the chance to invent the rules of writing themselves.''

--Elizabeth Schulz

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