The Power of Play

In last week’s session on “Embodiment and the Classroom,” I briefly spoke about the lifelong importance of play after we had done two exercises that incorporated elements of play. Play is often used in K-12 education, yet often goes unconsidered and neglected in higher education. However, the benefits of play are not limited to those under the age of 18.

I just came across this article by philosopher Stephen T. Asma in the New York Times Opinionator pages.

He writes: “The stakes for play are higher than we think. Play is a way of being that resists the instrumental, expedient mode of existence. In play, we do not measure ourselves in terms of tangible productivity (extrinsic value), but instead, our physical and mental lives have intrinsic value of their own. It provides the source from which other extrinsic goods flow and eventually return.

When we see an activity like music as merely a “key to success,” we shortchange it and ourselves. Playing a musical instrument is both the pursuit of fulfillment and the very thing itself (the actualizing of potential). Playing, or even listening, in this case, is a kind of unique, embodied contemplation that can feed both the mind and the body.”

I think play is central to what are doing in the classroom. Play can help increase motivation and instill a growth-mindset in students and instructors alike.

Would love to hear your thoughts or ways that you have incorporated play into your classes!


  1. Ryan, this is wonderful. Sometimes, for me, play goes right along with improvisational teaching (which I’ve had a blog post draft on for months now – I’m still thinking through what it means for me). I guess a response to my own parentheses, to start, is that improvisational teaching, as I practice is, means openness, synchrony with the moment and the folks in the room, and a willingness to change plans as things change. Like today, when someone mentioned a word they liked, we riffed on our favorite words, and realized together that we like some of them because of how they sound or how it makes us feel to say them, and we like others because of their meanings. It was wonderful – particularly coming after a really powerful discussion of the racialized violence in Baltimore and the rhetoric of how it’s being reported.

  2. Hi Ryan,
    I absolutely agree! One of the disheartening truths is that not very many higher ed professionals or students think play is effective or think it serious enough for higher ed. They tend to associate it with high school or fluff. The funny thing about play, I think, is that play changes as we get older. I certainly did not think I’d love writing research papers when I was in high school… How’d it become so much fun? I imagine that it was a combination of experiences bringing the fun to an otherwise boring class, gave me the feeling that it could be fun, that inquiry was fun, that puzzles were fun or that arguing was fun. I was terrible at science when I was younger, but then I took a class where every lecture came with a hands on activity (outside of the lab). Those activities were super fun and helped me retain and build on this information. The education was social, thoughtful and kind of exciting. As Asma says “in play we do not measure ourselves in terms of tangible productivity, but instead, our our physical and mental lives have intrinsic value of their own.” Serious learning does not necessarily come in a tidy professorial lecture, or because students want to earn high grades. When the student no longer cares about the grade and finds the enjoyment in the learning, that’s when the learning really begins.

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