The Importance of Play

Scott GallagherUncategorized

two teens playing a game they made up, called ground stomp

As a writing teacher, I love helping writers free themselves of certain not-so-great writing habits. It’s easy to trap yourself as a writer, going down well-worn paths, following forms and ideas already been done. Once you believe a poem or story should look a certain way, if you’re not careful, all your poems look that way. And where did you get the idea of what a story should look like anyway?  It doesn’t matter. What I try to do with myself and with my students is to set up situations that free us from those habits of writing. And the easiest way to do this is by playing. Cutting words out of books, rearranging things, mixing things up. Playing rhyming games, counting syllables, creating games of improvisation and randomness.  

These games and activities may feel pointless, meaningless, just for fun’s sake.  But if we look at the importance of play, there is no scarcity of serious thinkers who weigh in on the subject.  Albert Einstein in a letter to his son, talks about playing the piano:  “Mainly play the things on the piano which please you, even if the teacher does not assign those.” Doing what you love, the way you like to do it, he goes on, “is the way to learn the most, that when you are doing something with such enjoyment that you don’t notice that the time passes.”  In his book, Ideas and Opinions, Einstein says that “combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought.” Serious play can unearth new and exciting ideas and push your writing into unexpected places.

And as a teacher of writing, I’m a sucker for metaphor.  

I like to tell my students that writing is like putting a puzzle together but the pieces of the puzzle haven’t been made. You have to make the pieces and see if they fit. Sometimes they don’t. We don’t know what the puzzle is going to look like. The scholar Philip Shepherd in his book, New Self New World, says that “Playing is not about reverting to fixed solutions; it is about chasing the resonance of a perplexity into the unknown.”

And now, to mix metaphors:

When teens come to The Learning Cooperatives, for many, the prescribed—or pre-written—story of school is not the story they want. A self-directed environment encourages, requires them to puzzle things out for themselves and to write a totally unique story. The teens at our centers are encouraged to try things out, to dabble and experiment, to create new combinations of learning, to see what works and what doesn’t. Make the puzzle pieces and see what fits. Chase perplexity into the unknown. But most of all, to have fun and to play.  And it’s in that play that they can find their stories and find themselves.