the educational technology journal

Vol 19|No 1|September 2009

Play, Experimentation & Improvisation

By Jamie McKenzie About author

This article is based on Chapter Eighteen of my new book, Beyond Cut-and-Paste, copies of which began shipping at the end of June. Order a copy. Table of Contents and sample chapters.

“The play’s the thing.”

Shakespeare had something different in mind when he wrote those words for Hamlet to speak, but for this article, the words underline the importance of play in the early years of a child’s life as a foundation for imaginative thought and production.

This cluster diagram was created at the VisualThesaurus.Com and is reproduced here with permission.

The disappearance of play

The current drift of culture in many countries actually works to undermine the vitality of play, especially free play. According to a recent study, “Children’s Pastimes and Play in Sixteen Nations: Is Free Play Declining?” by Dorothy G. Singer, Jerome L. Singer, Heidi D’Agostino, and Raeka DeLong in the Winter 2009 issue of the American Journal of Play, “A decline in opportunities for free play and experiential learning is eroding childhood around the world.”

Through two years of interviewing, we hear the voices of mothers from around the world calling out in Spanish, Portuguese, Turkish, Thai, and other languages. . . . deeply concerned that their youngsters are somehow missing out on the joys of childhood and experiential learning opportunities of free play and natural exploration.

Even though a number of organizations such as the American Association of School Librarians, ISTE (the International Society for Technology in Education) and the Partnership for 21st Century Skills are calling for schools to stress original thought and imaginative production, schools in the United States and many other countries have been caught up in handling the demands of high-stakes testing in ways that might block such goals.

The connection between play and invention

Creative production is directly tied to a spirit of playfulness without which it is very difficult to generate exciting new possibilities. Imagination thrives when the spirit of play is cultivated and encouraged.

Many of the organizational development strategies designed to promote more inventive thought focus on promoting the attitudes required to test out promising new variations and possibilities.

Roger von Oech, suggests in A Whack on the Side of the Head, that we suffer from mental locks that inhibit our creative production:

Play is Frivolous
The Right Answer
I’m Not Creative
That’s Not Logical
That’s Not My Area
To Err Is Wrong
Follow the Rules
Don’t Be Foolish
Be Practical
Avoid Ambiguity

To unlock the potential of groups, von Oech introduces a number of games and activites to counter the influence of the mental locks listed above.

The Association for Childhood Education International has published a position paper with the title, “Play: Essential for All Children,” that makes a strong case for play:

Theorists, regardless of their orientation, concur that play occupies a central role in children’s lives. They also suggest that the absence of play is an obstacle to the development of healthy and creative individuals. Psychoanalysts believe that play is necessary for mastering emotional traumas or disturbances; psychosocialists believe it is necessary for ego mastery and learning to live with everyday experiences; constructivists believe it is necessary for cognitive growth; maturationists believe it is necessary for competence building and for socializing functions in all cultures of the world; and neuroscientists believe it is necessary for emotional and physical health, motivation, and love of learning. Source: http://www.acei.org/playpaper.htm

The Alliance for Childhood has launched a major campaign to counter a number of disturbing trends:

Among these are the loss of creative play and hands-on activities in children’s lives, and the excessive amounts of time spent in front of screens instead of in face-to-face engagement with other children, caring adults, and the natural world. We also work against the commercialization of childhood, the misuse of high-stakes testing, and increasing levels of childhood obesity.

The group has published a report, “Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School.”

New research shows that many kindergartens spend 2 to 3 hours per day instructing and testing children in literacy and math—with only 30 minutes per day or less for play. In some kindergartens there is no playtime at all. The same didactic, test-driven approach is entering preschools. But these methods, which are not well grounded in research, are not yielding long-term gains. http://drupal6.allianceforchildhood.org/publications

The American Academy of Pediatrics has released a report, “The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds” that states firmly that play is essential:

Play is essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth. Play also offers an ideal opportunity for parents to engage fully with their children. Despite the benefits derived from play for both children and parents, time for free play has been markedly reduced for some children. This report addresses a variety of factors that have reduced play, including a hurried lifestyle, changes in family structure, and increased attention to academics and enrichment activities at the expense of recess or free child-centered play.

Penn State has provided a wonderful article, “What Will the Children Play With?” outlining eight areas of play and how they can be set up to stimulate and encourage play.

1. Creative Art
2. Large Muscle Activities
3. Small Muscle Activities
4. Language Activities
5. Dramatic Pretend
6. Play Construction/Building/Blocks
7. Music
8. Science
http://betterkidcare.psu.edu/AngelUnits/OneHour/ EquipmentMaterials/EquipMatsLesson.html

Starting with parents

Given the cultural drift away from play, it would be wise for schools to start with parents to make sure they understand the value of play — especially unstructured or “free” play.

Much of the shift in childhood experience for the young has been engineered by parents who are anxious to provide their children with wonderful opportunities in the arts, in sports and in a host of areas where they see development aided by formal and structured learning opportunities.

It is a rare parent these days who understands the importance of free play, but they can be won over when they are shown the connection between free play and innovation. A number of articles might prove useful in launching such a parent education program.

One published by Scholastic, “The Joys of Doing Nothing,” by Margery D. Rosen, makes a convincing case for unstructured play.

“This generation of parents has swallowed whole, and in some cases, is choking on, the belief that the sooner you expose a child to learning, the more he or she will learn,” says Rosenfeld. “And if they don’t get it during those critical early childhood years, well, forget Harvard.” http://www2.scholastic.com/browse/article.jsp?id=1450

Redesigning homework

When schools have piled on many hours of homework each night, they have been complicit, so a review of homework policies is a good place to start. While some kinds of homework are beneficial and likely to promote imaginative thought, others are busy work unlikely to contribute to learning.

Schools should limit the time devoted to homework and focus on those activities with the highest payoff in terms of student learning and growth. In addition to shifting homework to stress valuable activities, the school should limit the number of hours each night so the child ends up with some free time after doing homework and various after school classes.

Here again the parents become important, because free play would not include TV viewing or computer games. Given a list of twenty choices, parents should be helped to understand which undermine and which strengthen the development of imagination.

Time to breathe

Within the school day itself, children should be given ample opportunities to play, provided with significant breaks throughout the day at recess and lunch so that their spirits can revive and can take flight. Proponents of extra instructional time often try to seize these minutes away, claiming that scores will rise as a result of extra learning time, but so far there is no convincing evidence that this works, and even if it did increase reading and math scores, the price paid would be the loss of imagination combined with stress and anxiety.

The biological, physiological and psychological arguments for recess and breaks are compelling. Human learning thrives when batteries are given a chance to recharge. Students return to class primed for the next dose of learning.

The National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education has issued a position paper, “Recess and the Importance of Play,” that outlines the benefits of recesss along with the research substantiating those benefits. The position paper goes into considerable detail with regard to how recess influences the social, emotional and physical development of children. http://naecs.crc.uiuc.edu/position/recessplay.html

Making Room for Experimentation

Playing with blocks is an old standby in kindergarten programs that can pay off mightily in terms of development, especially if the young children are inspired to experiment and see how high a tower or how far a bridge they can build.

Many of the areas of play outlined earlier by Penn State provide examples of places where the young can practice experimentation. Sadly, as children move into test-driven stages of elementary school and beyond, the focus often shifts to carefully structured learning activities tied to narrowly defined learning objectives and test items.

The drive for accountability has often led to a slimming down of the curriculum and a thinning of the learning opportunities.

Unfortunately, because there is a relationship between reading comprehension and experimentation, the focus of reading upon lower order tasks and patterns threatens the development of advanced comprehension skills. When students encounter the most difficult comprehension questions, they cannot rely upon memorized patterns and strategies. These questions are often open ended and require inference. Students must read between the lines, play with clues, test hypotheses and act a bit like a detective.

In recent years we have seen that some states have achieved what looked like miracles in terms of student achievement so long as that achievement was measured by state tests, but those same states did very poorly when their students took the NAEP tests.

The eighth grade reading questions on the NAEP test require an experimental bent — the capacity to wonder and wander a bit, playing with the evidence until an answer emerges. Below are a few examples of such questions:

1. Do you think the lesson in this story is true today? Why or why not?
2. Explain what makes this story a fable?
3. What was the major character’s opinion of _____? Use evidence from the story in your response.
4. What causes the main character to do _____? Use evidence from the story in your response.
5. How do you think the character’s actions might be different today? Support your response with evidence from the story. The rest can be found at http://www.nagb.org/publications/ frameworks/r_framework_05/ch2.html

Experimentation involves the testing of theories and possibilities. It requires an attitude as well as a skill set. When reviewing the research by P. David Pearson on reading comprehension, this capacity to try out different strategies in different combinations might be called “flexing” as outlined in F below:

A. Questioning — A proficient reader employs a toolkit of questions in order to solve puzzles, unlock mysteries and fashion meaning when it is elusive.
B. Picturing — A proficient reader relies upon her or his mind’s eye to increase understanding and organize complex ideas.
C. Inferring — A proficient reader can read between the lines, put clues together and figure out reasonable interpretations. D. Recalling Prior Knowledge — A proficient reader awakens relevant memories of information that might cast light on the topic or issue at hand.
E. Synthesizing — A proficient reader is skilled at combining fragments and ideas in new ways so as to squeeze import and novelty from them.
F. Flexing — A proficient reader knows how to slide back and forth across an array of strategies until one succeeds, picking and choosing purposefully.
Source: “Power Reading and the School Library” http://www.fno.org/sum05/powerread.html Much of the material above was drawn from the work of P. David Pearson and his research on reading comprehension in the 1980s that identified strategies of proficient readers — work cited by Stephanie Harvey in Nonfiction Matters: Reading, Writing and Research in Grades 3-8.

More recently, Pearson has combined with others to determine which approaches to change have the most impact “on schools with populations of students at risk of failure by virtue of poverty.” Teaching Reading: Effective Schools, Accomplished Teachers. Edited by Barbara M. Taylor and P. David Pearson. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah, New Jersey, 2002.

Pearson's Chapter Sixteen — “Research-Supported Characteristics of Teachers and Schools that Promote Reading Achievement” — is particularly relevant to the thrust of this article. As we saw in Chapter Four of this book, for the young to make their own meanings and figure things out for themselves, they need to be able to shift back and forth across the four operations of wondering, pondering, wandering and considering. Each has its own role and its own time, but often they will operate concurrently.

When reading passages, understanding depends upon this dynamic kind of mental experimenting. The reader first tries one interpretation, testing it against the evidence, then tries another and another until one makes sense and stands up to scrutiny.

When reading in a broader sense, seeking understanding within other categories of information as outlined in Chapters Twenty-One and Twenty-Two of this book, this experimental approach remains a core practice — the prime method to grasp elusive meanings.

Daily experiments

For students to become well versed and comfortable with experimentation, it should be a part of every day’s schooling and learning. One can achieve such a goal in several ways. One approach is the use of problem-based learning strategies so students are grappling with questions like the ones below:

• What do you suppose went wrong in the past?
• What are the key forces and variables operating here?
• Which ones offer the most opportunity and leverage?
• What do you suppose would happen if we combined the three most promising of the strategies we brain-stormed and researched?
• What kind of data must we gather to assess the success of our plan once we launch it?
• What do suppose might go wrong?
• Is there any way to prevent that from happening?

But experiments can also be identfied within the regular curriculum with a lot less fanfare. Students can learn to experiment or play with words as they write poems, testing out different variations on Web sites that support magnetic poetry.

1. Magnetic Poetry http://www.magneticpoetry.com/magnet/
2. Shocked Poetry http://www.shockedpoetry.com/

When students apply the Six Traits of Effective Writing to their drafts, they are also experimenting with voice, word choice and organization. See “From Start to Finish” at http://www.fno.org/sept98/ infolit5.html to see how this might operate.

Whether studying concepts in science or in social studies, opportunities abound to engage students in wondering and testing what might happen if certain things are changed around. In a novel the teacher might ask students to predict the ending if a certain event turns out badly.

Opportunities abound to make experimentation a daily challenge so long as teachers recognize the importance of this challenge and seize those chances to make it come to life.

Improvisation and all that jazz

For the purposes of this article, the concept of improvisation is linked to a number of other words that all capture some aspect of thinking on your feet, reacting to a surprise challenge without much preparation and performing well despite the pressure.

The publishing world offers dozens of books suggesting ways to think on your feet, but the concept has not received much attention in the educational world. Here are just a few examples of the many books:

Thinking on Your Feet: How to Communicate Under Pressure by Marian K. Woodall, Professional Business Communications; 2nd edition (June 1996)
Improvise This!: How to Think on Your Feet so You Don’t Fall on Your Face by Mark Bergren, Molly Cox and Jim Detmar. Hyperion, March, 2002.

In many respects, we expect students to learn how to ad lib when caught in a high pressure and surprising situation, but we would also hope that their response, while unrehearsed, would sitll be rooted in sound thinking, past experience and a firm grasp of the fundamentals.

In the world of jazz, young performers must master a repertory of chord progressions and harmonies so that they can count on them as structures around which and through which they might weave more magical variations.

It is much the same with the improvisation we should require of students in school. We ground them in the fundamentals and then ask them to stand up and deliver. We are not satisfied with canned presentations. We hand them a card that gives them a role and a position to defend. We give them a few minutes to prepare and then we send them to the podium. They are good at thinking on their feet.

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