“A personal philosophy about play?!” Brock repeated back to me equal parts incredulous and indignant after I’d excitedly passed out the assignment description I spontaneously created the week before. “Yes!” I cried, too excited to contain my exuberance. I felt a strong sense of urgency to veer off course in my Senior English class. “But… but this is school,” Brock countered quietly and a bit confusedly. “Yes!” I repeated, a bit loudly and a lot gleefully.
The 12th grade curriculum in my district focuses on work and career in its beginning months. It makes sense. Students are about to leave the certainty of high school and start to make their way in the world; they need resumes that highlight their unique skills, and cover letters that demonstrate self-awareness. But we were four weeks into virtual learning and all I wanted was for my students to close their laptops and go outside. All I wanted was to close my laptop and go outside.
“Playing is for kids!” Rashidi shouted from the back row and a ripple of laughter traveled through the room, affirming the importance of my impulse to celebrate play and glorify joy with the same (if not more) vigor than work is glorified as a symbol of status in the U.S. This is school, yes, but what is school if not preparation for life? And what do I truly want my students’ lives to look like? I want balance, safety and joy for them. They have passions that deserve cultivation and they have beautifully weighty choices to soon make about how they will spend their time. I do not want all of their identity to come from how they earn money, but too, from the things they love to do.
“Oh! Interesting,” I mused to Rashidi, “How many here think play is something only kids do?” Many hands shot into the air, some were more tentatively raised, but very few students kept their hands down. “Perfect!” I exclaimed, because despite the common misconception, play is integral to a healthy life for adults and children alike.
So what exactly do I mean when I say play? According to Stuart Brown, M.D., founder of the National Institute for Play, there are seven properties of playful activity: it must be voluntary, have apparent purposelessness (done for its own sake), have an inherent attraction, create a diminished consciousness of self, have improvisational potential, instill a desire to continue, and cause one to lose track of time. I asked my students: What is something you do where you get so lost in what you are working on, you don’t notice the time ticking by? Where time just flies? Where you are excited to try new methods, skills or techniques? To grow at it? Not to make money, or because you have to, but simply because it fills your spirit?
For me, it’s rafting and it’s photography. Those activities make me feel more like my true self; they connect me to my true north. For my students, it was baseball, writing and drawing comic strips, writing code for video games; it was road biking, horseback riding, composing music, making beats, painting and more.
Some students really struggled to identify play in their lives. Many had never thought about what brings them joyful challenge before. Some have never been afforded the privilege of play. To jumpstart our unit, we consulted Brené Brown who suggests making “Play Lists.” In her podcast, she describes revisions to family time: she had each family member make a list of the activities that they love to do, then she created a Venn diagram. Now when they schedule family vacations or pick activities for family time, they choose from the overlapping sections.
Play is more than just an activity that is fun. There are countless benefits to play — it makes us more productive, more creative, more innovative and intelligent; it increases emotional intelligence and flexes our empathy muscles. It even has the ability to override power differentials in relationships. It’s integral to mental health, managing stress and bringing joy. It’s important enough to our wellbeing that Article 24 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says, “Everyone has the right to rest and leisure.”
So no, studying play wasn’t in the curriculum, but yes, it was imperative to investigate. For three weeks, we dove deep into play: we studied more about the biology of play, the benefits of play and consequences of play deprivation from Dr. Brown, we investigated the Greek and Roman conceptions of the good life, we researched mandatory paid vacation and its impacts, Nature Deficit Disorder, forest bathing, and friluftsliv. Students then used this research to support their personal philosophy about play. They defined what a good life is to them. They described the ways they want play to show up in their lives and they set tangible goals.
In his book, Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, Dr. Brown reminds us that play is about what motivates us and what makes us ourselves, it’s about what gives us a sense of purpose: “Without play, we don’t really have that deep engagement in our own life and future.” And really, what more could I want for my students than an understanding of what makes them, them? Than a deep engagement with their own life? Than a sense of purpose? What more could I want for myself and for the people I love?
As 12th graders, my students are on the precipice of freedom and independence, so it was particularly relevant to reflect on how they spend their time and why. I smiled seeing them present their joys to the class, to stake their identities in this way. But if I’m honest, the most pivotal part of our curricular detour was that deep engagement with my own life – the reflections I gained from writing the example essay brought me immense and needed clarity. I had to scrutinize the ways I spend my time away from work and if those choices were in line with my beliefs about play and my knowledge of what fills me up and grounds me. I found that often they did not. Life gets busy; it’s easy to fill my time with more tasks, chores, and lesson planning. Play often takes a back seat since I can always find more work to do. Annie Dillard, a favorite author of mine, wrote, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” This assignment gifted me an archival document where my beliefs, values, and intentions for my time are crystalized so that I might spend my days the way I want to spend my life. I hope it did the same for my students.
After I wrote my personal philosophy, my partner and I made a Venn diagram and we scheduled some play. It’s been 10 months since I taught this unit, and as I start another school year, I am genuinely looking forward to returning to my play goals, individually and with my partner. Although I am a work in progress, my life is richer for taking play seriously. Stuart Brown says, “the opposite of play isn’t work, the opposite of play is depression.” So whether you craft a short philosophical statement about play and the ways you hope to spend your time, or make a Play List, I hope you make space for joy. I hope you spend your days playfully. I hope you gift yourself time to spend your days the way you want to spend your life.