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The True Object of All Human Life Is Play.*

April 19, 2010

Play is our brain’s favorite way of learning.
•Diane Ackerman

I laughed my way through several committee meetings on Friday. Back-to-back meetings for several hours. It could have been torturous, but because of the various groups of people I was with, it wasn’t. I could have left campus bogged down and tired, but I didn’t. I felt energized. There is a lesson to be learned here for students.

There are study group sessions that suck the success right out of you, so boring and humorless that you no longer even care if you learn anything from the experience. There are study group sessions that waste your time when they devolve into giggling goofiness without purpose. And then there are the sessions that blend fun and camaraderie with seriousness. It might seem that fun has no place in a gathering devoted to test prep or peer editing or presentation planning or whatever it is the group’s meeting for, but shared fun is a powerful way to create cohesiveness within a group.

The degree to which playfulness becomes part of the process will depend on the group’s task. Memorizing complex formulas is likely to call for more seriousness than planning an engaging presentation.

When I teach a creativity course, I ask my students to reframe their instructions to students, asking them to “play around with” something rather than “work on it.” This simple twist of words can alleviate stress. Certainly the teacher needs to make sure that what students are playing with are the requisite ideas, but permission to play often frees new pathways in the brain.

One of the books on my shelves of favorites is Anne Bruce and James S. Pepitone’s (1999) book, Motivating Employees. I find lots of wisdom applicable to education in things written for business and I especially like Bruce and Pepitone’s list of the “10 Characteristics of Fun” (p. 91):

1)    Humor alleviates stress and tension.
2)    Fun improves communication.
3)    Fun eases conflict
4)    Laughter can help us survive.
5)    Laughing at yourself is the highest form of humor.
6)    Laughter has a natural healing power.
7)    Humor helps lighten the load.
8)    Fun unites people.
9)    Fun breaks up boredom and fatigue.
10)    Fun creates energy.

I’ve experienced the truth of these things in my own personal and professional life, most recently on Friday during a stretch of potentially boring meetings made delightful by the presence of others willing to laugh and take lightly—yet seriously—the tasks we faced.

In my research into fun in learning, I’ve found that the coin of fun has two sides: one is playfulness and the other is deeply serious engagement in whatever it is that needs to be done. This seemingly paradoxical duality has to be experienced before you can fully understand it.

Have you ever had fun while accomplishing a serious or meaningful or difficult task?

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but play is certainly the father.
• Roger von Oech

* Thanks to G.K. Chesterton for the title quotation.

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