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The Curriculum of Play
What are the subjects of play? That’s an odd question because we don’t customarily ask ourselves to think hard about play. It’s something we do in between being serious, isn’t it? When machines “play” we get worried and say they’re broken, yet men and women and animals play all the time. What’s going on?
Even the term is ambiguous; what we mean by it isn’t automatically clear. Organized play, the kind that happens under supervision on school playgrounds, misses almost all the values real play has to teach. It isn’t play at all; it has no danger, it has no unpredictable component. If you go through youth playing it safe in supervised play, you’re in big trouble, I think.
Whatever else it is, play is freedom. It expresses a wordless joy at being alive. Think of comedy: The heart of comedy is playing with language, playing with ordinary everyday forms of expression and word combinations, pronunciations, rhythms, emphases – this playing is what we mean by “style.” The style of Elvis or Laurel and Hardy arises from highly personalized decisions – some unconscious, some conscious – about how to stretch the conventions of speech and behavior. Anyone who can escape the gravitational pull of convention for awhile delights in witnessing new – and personally unsuspected and untried – possibilities being modeled by stylists.
Lady Gaga, Humphrey Bogart, Barack Obama, Babe Ruth, Marilyn Monroe. Add a hundred thousand to the mix and suddenly we see that originality of style – the signature of any memorable presence – comes from playing fearlessly with human possibilities. I dare say it’s a big part of our fascination with murderers and other human monsters, too, on the dark side of the ledger. But for the most part, style and opportunity are traveling companions, so much so that we might demand that schools alert their students to the urgency of developing a style while young, rather than suppressing such emergences.
Although the examples of style given so far were all from “star” personalities who staked out a territory of playing so unmistakably they came to own it, the very same dynamic is at work among ordinary people – the ones who have played their way to a style are far from ordinary to their loved ones and associates. You needn’t be flashy to have a unique style. Indeed, if you haven’t done that by the time you leave home into manhood or womanhood, odds are long that you’ll ever have a well- defined self to present to the world.
In the Sunday New York Times of January 10, 2010, an essay entitled “How Weird Are You?” in the Business section, informs us that the CEO of an Amazon affiliate will only hire people with distinctively individualized personalities. They energize the workplace, he said, and are active assets to the business, while those who are just faces in the crowd, regardless of how well they work, are net liabilities.
He said his bedrock determinant in hiring, even in hiring senior executives, was whether the prospective employee was “someone we would choose to have dinner or drinks with….”
The only reliable way to develop a distinctive style is through play because only through the freedom of play can you try out different versions of yourself and judge from the feedback whether to make them permanent parts of yourself.
Dogs romp, cats chase string, finches ride air currents as if on roller coasters, some kids skip stones on water, others watch snow fall for long stretches of time, as if hypnotized, as my cousin Patty did as a little girl – a behavior that hypnotized me.
All real play has a meaning that transcends the immediate needs of existence, almost as if it existed to remind us that rational calculations about the use of our limited time fall woefully short of what our spirits need to thrive.
Lord Wellington said that the Battle of Waterloo was won in the playing fields: Brits played more freely than the French. Other commentators on deadly combat have said similar things. In explaining why WWII German armies inflicted thirty to forty percent more casualties than they took, even when they were significantly outnumbered and outgunned, the brilliant Israeli military historian, Martin Van Crevald told his readers that the German High Command taught its officers to regard war as play – kriegspiel. Local unit commanders were given the freedom to adapt to the circumstances in front of them instead of having to follow the rule book as Allied commanders did.
True play is easy to spot because the players are intensely involved, totally absorbed, displaying a high degree of concentration. But in supervised play, it’s common to see only a fraction of players involved, while many others stand around looking lackadaisical. Real play is neither mindless nor directed from an adult mind center. It’s so directed by freewill – think of surfing the Internet – that its sequences are impossible to predict. It is the very opposite of mechanical behavior.
Freedom is the first characteristic of real play, but rules play a larger part in play than in everyday life – without a dedication to the rules (even if those are self-imposed rules), the illusion of play is lost. Those rules are magical and may not be disobeyed. In all but its most bureaucratic and scholastic manifestations, science itself is magical play, a point dramatically illustrated in a book titled The Double Helix, written by two Nobel Prize winners, James Watson and Francis Crick. Those are the folks who discovered the double-helical structure of DNA.
Spend a few hours with this slim volume and you’ll be tickled to learn that what triggered their world-changing string of insights came directly from pure play. Bored with their regular lab duties, the young men took a long break to lie on the floor before the window in an ordinary oven and melt things. Just horsing around. Then, something melted in an unexpected way and their curiosity was triggered in a way which hardly would have happened if they hadn’t stepped out of real life into a dimension of its own. Doing that is always a second characteristic of real play.
The third characteristic of play is that it is bounded, separated from the ordinary by a special time and place, and by those inflexible rules imposed by the player or players. Players don’t just fool around promiscuously, they play toward a goal which, when reached, eases some kind of tension.
It’s easy to see this in team sports, a fairly weak form of play – when play at all – in which individuals pretend to be moving parts in a competitive machine, a collective. But it’s a lot more difficult to discern in the really self-instructive forms of play, the single player sports where the player follows rules of which only she or he is fully aware, the so-called “helix” sports like seatless unicycle riding over broken terrain. Beyond pure joy, the point of such play is to uncover one’s physical or psychological limits – and to exceed them.
Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatric thinker, saw fantasy and play as interchangeable manifestations of the same force, and as the foundation of all creative arts. In the absence of play, he said, “no creative work has ever yet come to birth.” The would-be fine artist incapable of play is merely a common illustrator; the inventor incapable of play never existed or ever will exist.
But the ordinary citizen in command of an active imagination is dangerous. Realizing this makes it easier to understand why so many great philosophers and theologians – dependent for their bread, butter, and status on selling useful advice to rulers – recommended mass schooling of the young as the best way to weaken imagination and make subject populations manageable.
Think of all the businesses of mass entertainment as ways to substitute the imaginations of a few for the uncontrolled and dangerously uncontrollable imaginations of millions. Socializing imagination is the most important job mass schooling does in the interests of those who value social stability over individual development.
What are the proper subjects of proper play? In the face of institutionalized compulsion schooling, it provides the tools of education that being schooled like a fish cannot. For school to do its work, it must center itself around obedience, deference, competition, routines, and memory. But those are only minor parts of an education.
What befuddles the public in its thinking about education is that it has been misled into making learning equivalent to classroom teaching of “subjects” – subjects like English, Social Studies, and Science when those collective abstractions are close to meaningless. Subject-learning lends itself naturally to standardized questions, and right-wrong answers, which damage the ability of the mind to think in an original, nuanced way. In subject-teaching we learn to memorize the given dots, but are discouraged from trying to connect them for ourselves. The only allowable connections are those given by authority – and those must be memorized, too, along with fact-bits.
Is there a science class in the country which sets out to encourage every single individual it confines to put Nature to the question? Is there a language class which elevates persuasive speaking and writing to the supreme position those active literacies deserve as life-changing skills – in a way that nothing else school has to offer can so dramatically enlarge the field of personal opportunity? Shouldn’t math for the millions concentrate on statistical prophecy before anything else – as the way that modern commerce and politics proceed?
Almost nothing school offers is educational in the fundamental sense that it offers understanding and hard-nosed skills. When you emerge from school, can you build a house, make clothing, grow food, repair a machine?
Do you know the ways of the human heart so well it would be hard to fool you? Can you concentrate? Can you associate skillfully in any kind of human situation? Are you self-reliant, resourceful, strategic or tactical at your own discretion? Do you trust your judgment or do you subordinate yourself to “experts”?
Will you be able to steer your own ship through the years of your life, or have you only been trained to be crew on someone else’s ship, and to listen to a stranger as your captain?
It would take a book to cut through the nonsense of subject-teaching and the conditioned anti-educational habits of forced confinement schooling down to the bedrock of what education might mean. But I’ve already alluded to enough of the fundamental principles here that you ought to be able to proceed by yourself. Virtually every study of intellectual superiority concludes that the ability to concentrate, on a single thing for long periods of time, sets the best thinkers apart from the ordinary. With that insight, shouldn’t a master subject called “Concentration” exist? Shouldn’t we clear away the confusing smoke and mirrors of subject-learning for the young, and fix their attention on this life and death skill, whatever particular class they are in?
Now, for your test in connecting the dots for yourself! If concentration is really so vitally important, then why is schooltime so frequently interrupted by bells and buzzers, loudspeaker announcements, messengers, late-comers, pull-out programs, the outrageous behavior of people who don’t want to be there, and all the other particles that make classrooms a chaos of broken time?
Watch your own son or daughter playing at something of his or her own free will. Remember their anger when you intrude. Think of the secret, evasive behaviors they employ when you, or some other claim on their time, threatens this unworldly concentration. Think of the “Dungeons and Dragons” crowd, the computer game crowd, the horse-jumping crowd, the solitary fishing crowd, the crowd lost in a football frenzy. Now imagine the exquisite release of play they are experiencing. It can only happen when the world is shut out. Play is how most of us learn to concentrate.
Next, think of the various utilities of the skill of association, of being able to associate with all kinds of people in all kinds of situations. Surely you don’t think you learned how to do that in school? School presents daily exercises in dis-association. It forces unwelcome associations on most of its prisoners. It sets petty, meaningless competitions in motion on a daily basis, pitting potential associates against one another in contests for praise and other worthless prizes.
You won’t do well in life without skill in association, no matter what else you know. How is it that training in association and concentration – along with other vital skills like expression, civility, and many other universal values, doesn’t comprise the foundation of school training and the grades assigned? Trust me, when you undertake to do that sincerely as a teacher – as I did – your discipline problems are substantially reduced, and the production of your classes in subject learnings (!) substantially increased.
While most kids have no idea why they are asked to memorize quadratic equations, or “How a Bill Becomes a Law,” they accept quite naturally the idea that concentration and association mark off the people worthy of opportunity in the future from the slugs. And they are eager to put themselves through exercises to develop those skills. In self-organized group play (much more than in the adult imposed variety), exercises in association and the arts of fellowship are inherently part of the activity. More than one sociologist has noticed that play communities tend to become permanent, even after the game is over. The feeling of having shared something important retains its magic beyond the play interval. Mutual play promotes social groupings which see themselves as different, and linked.
Play teaches many other things we expect to find in the educated, things which strike one by their absence in common forms of schooling. Play teaches empathy, how to endure, how to have leisure, adventure, independence, self-reliance, and more.
Notice that the tests of play are all performance tests; none are assisted by paper and pencil. In the most valuable forms of play – solitary play – these tests can only be graded by the player.
Competition against oneself is the great secret to having a productive and interesting life. Those who learn that lesson become immune to boredom, armored against vicissitude. But the only way to possess this secret is by playing.
This article has been provided to Life Learning Magazine by the author for publication in the magazine. It is © copyright John Taylor Gatto. All rights reserved and all other use must be approved by the author. John Taylor Gatto was New York State Teacher of the Year prior to resigning from teaching because he didn’t want to do any more harm to children. The books he has written include Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling, The Underground History of American Education and Weapons of Mass Instruction. He is also a popular speaker at homeschooling conferences around the world. This article was presented as the keynote speech at the Unschooling Conference in Madison, Wisconsin, February, 2010.
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We have used the term "life learning" for many decades to describe personalized, non-coercive, active, interest-led learning from life – for people of all ages. The term also refers to a form of homeschooling that trusts and respects children, and that avoids the trappings of school; in that context, it is sometimes called unschooling or natural learning. Life learning children live and learn, with the support of their families, based on their own interests and their own timetables, and without curriculum, tests, or grades. Go here for links to articles that provide a more comprehensive explanation.