Vol 13, Num 8 :: 2014.04.18 — 2014.05.01
Learning versus playing. That dichotomy seems natural to people…. Learning, according to that almost automatic view, is what children do in school and, maybe, in other adult-directed activities. Playing is, at best, a refreshing break from learning. From that view, summer vacation is just a long recess, perhaps longer than necessary. But here’s an alternative view, which should be obvious but apparently is not: playing is learning. At play, children learn the most important of life’s lessons, the ones that cannot be taught in school. To learn these lessons well, children need lots of play — lots and lots of it, without interference from adults.
Peter Gray, “The play deficit” in Aeon Magazine
You know when you come across an article or essay that sticks with you to the point that you find yourself referencing it in an embarrassing number of conversations? Yep, that’s what’s happened with “The play deficit” by Peter Gray, an article that my husband Rob sent me a while back. It comes up in every conversation I have about our current education system — you know, that broken one that has a nasty habit of warehousing both teachers and students in a prison of standardized tests and prescribed benchmarks.
At its worst, that is.
With the modernist quest for measurable goals, many of us want to be in the global race for the highest scores. You might not be an educator but, come on, didn’t you feel a bit stung when the recent numbers came out about how the U.S. ranks so far behind most of the world in every subject? But as Gray points out, the Asian countries at the front of the pack are starting to drop warning messages for those of us stragglers: it’s not working. Gray notes that “a common term used in China to refer to graduates is gaofen dineng, meaning ‘high scores but low ability’. Because students spend nearly all their time studying, they have little opportunity to be creative, take initiative, or develop physical and social skills: in short, they have little opportunity to play.” One of the primary purposes of play, among young across species, is to learn how to be an adult through mimicry — and not only to learn the hard skills of cooking and driving and using a phone, but to become a whole person who feels and interprets and creates and yearns.
Though Gray’s research focuses on play among the young, this work of becoming a whole person certainly doesn’t end when we reach the age of consent (whatever that means). In a talk this past weekend at the Festival of Faith & Writing, graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang credited Neil Gaiman for a bit of advice he shared with the fellow artists in the room: if our lives are all art, we’ll end up with a bunch of skilled writers with nothing to say. We have to have lives outside our work, no matter how absorbing and important that work is. Gaiman himself, in a 2012 commencement speech at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, advised his audience to mimic the people we hope to be:
Someone asked me recently how to do something she thought was going to be difficult, in this case recording an audio book, and I suggested she pretend that she was someone who could do it. Not pretend to do it, but pretend she was someone who could. She put up a notice to this effect on the studio wall, and she said it helped. So be wise, because the world needs more wisdom, and if you cannot be wise, pretend to be someone who is wise, and then just behave like they would.
And this is where I begin to remember (again) the relevance of my seemingly irrelevant undergraduate training in theatre. Because wholeness and flourishing — shalom, if you will — are not just about self-actualization. It’s not just about delivering the best monologue I possibly can to an audience dying to shower me with applause and roses, but about being a contributing member of the cast in acting out the world we all want to live in. Peter Block, in his philosophical and practical instruction manual called Community: The Structure of Belonging, says that “if every gathering is an occasion for producing for ourselves a future we want to inhabit, then we need to design it for that intention.” This means the sets, the costumes, the words, the emotions, the props – “the play’s the thing wherein we catch the conscience of the King.”
And contrary to what many of us might have picked up along the way in pre-school, elementary school, middle school, high school, Sunday school and most every other kind of school: there is no script. It’s all improvisation, which is both the most exciting and the most terrifying kind of news. We are free to fail. Gaiman concludes his speech with these words:
And now go, and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here. Make good art.
May our education at all stages with life be infused with whimsy and curiosity and creativity and grace, as we seek to image not just idealized versions of ourselves, but a mysterious Word who’s finest performance was not a death scene, but a resurrection.