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If life is a game, then education is play

This month, SmartBlog on Education is exploring classroom design and management — just in time for the new school year. In the second of a three-part blog series, Lucien Vattel, founder and co-director of the PlayMaker School and CEO of nonprofit GameDesk, makes the case for play as the underpinning of education.

BE playful. Dear one, be playful. No matter the challenge, no matter the disappointment, no matter the struggle: Be playful. Any obstacle or difficulty is an opportunity for playfulness. Maintain a playful spirit with others and always with yourself. A sense of play can smooth the ride and illuminate solutions not readily visible. Explore and experiment, keep your eyes open wide with wonder and be open to the mysteries that surround you.

I affirm that education is best when built upon such notions of play. Play embodies our natural inclination to explore and experiment with objects and systems outside of us and integrate them first-hand into our psyche. Through educational play, we get to explore new ideas and come to know ourselves, as well as those around us in often-profound ways. Play takes us out of the conceptual and into the experiential. It allows us to see our actions and our reactions. With good facilitation we can see the choices we make and why we made them. This leads to a deeper understanding in the learner. Playful simulations can actively engage learners in difficult topics, by allowing them to experience the cause-and-effect relationship of their actions in a detailed and immersive environment, with the whole of themselves “attuning” to the concepts at play.

Creative and spontaneous play plants seeds for healthy mental and social behavior. It sets the stage for a solid and experientially founded education where playfully developed self-beliefs set a positive and creative stage for academic development. It helps us safely play out theories, scenarios, ideas, and problem sets. It enables us to move beyond “what we know” and the “skills we possess” and into to who we are. Imagine this as a cornerstone of our education, empowering ourselves while allowing more freely creative growth, individually and collectively.

Unfortunately, this is not the reality that our children live in today. Our high-stakes, test-driven culture is suppressing our children’s curiosity and squashing their imaginations and playful lens on life. We are not freed by our education, but conditioned by it. Conditioned for what? To what end, and at what price? When we are very young, play and learning are integrated seamlessly and in balance. As we grow older, our modern school system separates them. What does that say about us? A school needs to be a reflection and I would argue an enhancement of the world surrounding it. It has to be life and career reflective. Both of which maintain their reality within a schema of direct experiences. Direct experiences open us up and allow us to know the world first hand — its cultures, its ideas and its systems. Shouldn’t our educational paradigm fundamentally encompass and support that reality?

The word “education” can be traced back to the Latin root words, “e” and “ducere.” Together, “e-ducere” can mean to “to call forth from within.” I affirm that the best way to educate is to provide an engaging, loving and playful context in which we are able to draw out from within ourselves. We should be allowed to playfully explore, create, build and participate in the creation of new thoughts and ideas. We should be placed in playful contexts to intermix those ideas, and manifest them into our world. Our learning should emerge naturally from within, through play.

Playful learning can break down into a variety of different forms. There are open sandbox environments like Universe Sandbox or Minecraft, where one can virtually or physically build open-ended solutions, whether that be in the world of physics, earth science, architectural or genetic landscapes. You can have specific game-based experiences where the choices you make have a direct correlation to the concepts or process the game seeks to teach you. You can learn about civic action and political systems by role-playing through the various political and cultural systems. Collaborative play problem solving challenges allow students to play together though a set of challenges that help them arrive at a strategic solution together. The list of playful vehicles is endless. You can place a playful experiential lens of learning upon any form of content or instruction.

Through a playful lens, every point of contact in our lives is an opportunity to discover something more, in conversation, in visual experience, in personal challenge and even in emotional pain. Every moment is a lesson and an opportunity to become more. If our teaching allows the learner to see that, and to know that, then the way they engage and interpret the world is forever changed.

Our consciousness is at constant play with everything it touches, even when we sleep our dreams offer lessons to our subconscious mind. It never stops and it never ends. However, the difference between substantial intellectual, spiritual and physical growth and just surfing the edge of understanding is the level of awareness and the level of deep engagement we have in the experience. This awareness is best awoken through direct interactive experience. The facilitation and support of that experience by the older and wiser facilitators help maximize that potential. It is therefore important that we as a society develop a culture of teaching that accepts and practices this approach to learning.

Read part one of this series.

Lucien Vattel is CEO of nonprofit GameDesk. He also is the founder and co-director of thePlayMaker School, which takes a new approach to the way we teach and learn. Previously, Vattel was the associate director for Game Research at the University of Southern California for its CS Program in Games. While at USC he was the co-founder and designer of the master’s and undergraduate Game Degree programs. He can be reached via email at lucienvattel@gamedesk.org

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