All Work and No Play Makes Everything Dull

As educators we all study the importance of giving students the time to play during the school day. During our coursework to become teachers, we learn about the importance of play in a child’s early developmental stages. We know that if we can give students time to play to learn, that ultimately we are helping them make connections to their learning that they will remember for a lifetime.

But, how many of us make the time in our own busy schedules to feel the full benefits of play?controller

Play Can Help Educators Beat Burnout

Midway through a school year, many teachers find themselves facing exhaustion and burn out. At this time, in particular, it could be extremely beneficial for teachers to harness the power of play as a way to combat burnout and change the tone and direction of their school year.

In the article “The Key to Happiness: a Taboo for Adults?” stress management trainer and coach Joe Robinson suggests that:

When you’re stressed, the brain’s activated emotional hub, the amygdala, suppresses positive mood, fueling a self-perpetuating cycle of negativity. Play can break you out of that straitjacket. It also cut through stagnation at the office. Studies show that playfulness can increase performance on the job and stoke creativity by breaking up the mental set that keeps us stuck. It resets the brain.

Play can take many forms and has many definitions. Boston College Professor, Peter Gray Ph.D, outlines five characteristics of play in the article “The Value of Play I: The Definition of Play Gives Insights”. According to Gray, play is:

  1. Self-chosen and directed
  2. An activity where the means have more value than the ends
  3. An activity where the rules or structure originates in the minds of those playing
  4. Is imaginative and not serious
  5. Involves an active mind, free of stress

As adults, when we choose to play, we do so out of an interest in the topic or activity. Simply engaging in something for the pleasure of doing it can help to relieve stress and spark our creativity. Gray points out in another article “The Value of Play II: How Play Promotes Reasoning” that “…play automatically induces hypothetical reasoning. It leads us to think about pretend worlds, where anything is possible, and to reason about those possibilities, rather than to limit our thoughts just to things that are true in the immediate here and now.” This type of creative inspiration can lead us to solutions to problems we have been struggling to overcome.

There is Power in Play

Play research and work compiled by Stuart Brown, M.D. in the book Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul supports the power associated with play. Brown states that play “energizes us and enlivens us. It eases our burdens.  It renews our natural sense of optimism and opens us up to new possibilities” (4). For teachers, being able to recognize new possibilities can change the course of an entire school year; especially one that you are struggling to get through.ball

Those Who Play, and Those Who Do Not

In different discussions with educators, I have observed that there seems to be two types of educators: those who play, and those who don’t. Those who play are the ones who appear to pick up on ideas faster, they make quicker connections, and show no fear of new things. They experiment, and in general seem more comfortable with failing, because after all failing is an attempt in learning and necessary to move forward in many cases. Those who lack play in their lives seem to suffer from longer periods of burnout and struggle to implement new ideas.

There seems to be two types of educators: those who play, and those who don’t.

These observations about the importance of play for teachers are similar to those made by many other educators. During #KyEdChat, a Twitter chat for Kentucky educators I regularly participate in and sometimes moderate, I found myself in a conversation with some members of my Professional Learning Network (PLN) about the need to play, and the difficulty and resistance we often face in trying to get teachers to buy into the idea of playing to learn.

Our #KyEdChat Twitter Talk

As the librarian and main technology contact at my elementary school, I often find myself using phrases like “you kind of have to play with the technology to get a feel for what it does” or “I figured that out by playing around with it.” And, I’m often met with “I wish I had time to do that” or “I don’t know how to do that”.

Promoting Play for Teachers

Using our discussion on Twitter as a jumping off point, fellow librarian James Allen and I began to brainstorm ways that we could draw attention to the benefits of playing for adults and ways that we could challenge our colleagues to play. Through our discussion that we came up with the idea to promote play by asking teachers to take one week during the school year and to play for a total of just one hour. As librarians, it is easy for us to provide teachers with a place and some resources to support them in doing that.

We want to highlight the idea that Brown shares in his book that:

Respecting our biologically programmed need for play can transform work. It can bring back excitement and newness to the job. Play helps us deal with difficulties, provides a sense of expansiveness, promotes mastery of our craft, and is an essential part of job and satisfaction in our work. In the long run, work does not work without play (127).

Teaching is a craft, and for the sake of our students, it is important that we hone our skills and keep up with trends and research in the field. By taking some time to play with new ideas, new technologies, new strategies we could discover new possibilities and directions that will lead us, and consequently our students to new understandings.

Go Play!

In Kentucky, James Allen and I are working on organizing a movement that will encourage teachers to play through events that we are calling #KyGoPlay. We are encouraging teachers to play for one hour during the week of March 9, 2015. They could come together as a faculty or work on something on their own, but we’re hoping that people share what they’re playing and learning on social media using the hashtag #KyGoPlay so that we can all benefit from the playing and learning happening. We’ve developed a video to help explain the importance of play, and we’re sharing it with others in our state.

For my part, I’m working on developing an event in coordination with the Physical Education teacher at my school to give teachers an opportunity to play in a traditional sense to release stress and gain some ideas for team building and to have access to different technologies to play to learn.


You Can Benefit from Play!

It wouldn’t take much for you to benefit from the power of play. You could gather together with your PLN and play, turn your next faculty meeting into play date, where you take teachers on a geocaching treasure hunt or have a faculty game of capture the flag. You could also make things like tablets/laptops or Legos available in the faculty lounge during lunch time for teachers to tinker with together.

As educators, if we can rediscover the power in play for ourselves and beat the dull grind, we could, as Brown points out “stumble upon new behaviors, thoughts, strategies, movements, or ways of being” because after all, “…play is critical not only to being happy, but also to sustaining social relationships and being a creative, innovative person” (6). And, as we all understand innovative teachers are those who make the greatest impact on their students.



  • Allen, James – Image Credit
  • Brown, Stuart, M.D. Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. New York: Penguin, 2009
  • Gray, Peter, Ph.D. “The Value of Play I: The Definition of Play Gives Insights.” Psychology Today. N.p., 19 Nov. 2008. Web. 13 Feb. 2015.
  • Gray, Peter, Ph.D. “The Value of Play II: How Play Promotes Reasoning.” Psychology Today. N.p., 4 Dec. 2008. Web. 13 Feb. 2015.
  • Robinson, Joe. “The Key to Happiness: A Taboo for Adults?” The Huffington Post., 18 Jan. 2011. Web. 09 Feb. 2015

Feature image courtesy of Flickr,eschipul.

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