Teaching Profession Opinion

Play is Good. Purposeful Play? Better.

By Bud Hunt — January 28, 2013 2 min read
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Bud Hunt

It seems that many of us in this discussion are fans of encouraging play and exploration. That’s great. I’m certainly a fan, as my previous post should document.

But I wonder if I might suggest a bit more structure when it comes to how a teacher working with a new platform, tool, or piece of hardware might begin.

I talk and write a lot about the power of purposeful play. Some folks have challenged me when I put those two words together, because playfulness and purpose are sometimes seemingly at odds. But they’re not. Playing with a purpose is knowing you want to get somewhere and heading out in that direction.

Playing with purpose is setting a goal or two. Or it might be deciding what tools you are certain you won’t use, or maybe are certain you will.

Every year or so, I like to set some learning areas for myself, and try to direct my curiosity around them. When my children were born, I was working to learn about photography, as I wanted to capture their lives and a bit more of my own. I bought some equipment (toys) and tried to aim my attention at spaces and folks who were playing with photography, too. I didn’t sit down and say, “Okay, I need a photography class,” or “Gee, I could use some photography professional development.” I just played with pictures and cameras. And I got better. On purpose.

Individual purpose is, though, only a piece of what I’d like to suggest. There’s value in organizations specifying some purposes as more relevant than others. Standards are a piece of this, but not the whole story. In learning organizations, be they schools or districts or even academic departments, might I suggest that it’s the job of the organization, through some sort of collaborative structure, to set broad purposes or goals for the play that it encourages. I’m not talking about more standards, or really, really narrow expectations, but I mean that the organization should be suggesting some broad targets for play, to encourage the types of experiences they would like for teachers and students to have.

And learning organizations are typically pretty good at doing this first part—the suggesting. But what they need to do, too, is to put their money and resources where the recommendations are and to provide time, support, and opportunities for that play to happen. Learning organizations should be really, really good at creating spaces for purposeful play for students, teachers, parents, administrators, and all in the communities they serve.

Otherwise, all that purpose setting? It’s just lip service. Or, at worst, it’s an awful lot of people playing their own games in total isolation or conflict with one another. And what’s the fun in that?

Bud Hunt is an instructional technology coordinator for the St. Vrain Valley Schools in northern Colorado. He works with teachers and technologists to ensure the thoughtful use of technology for teaching and learning. Bud blogs at Bud the Teacher.

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