Aging Play

“I don’t think education is about centralized instruction anymore; rather, it is the process establishing oneself as a node in a broad network of distributed creativity . . . Play is about exploring the possible. In times of rapid change, exploring the possible becomes an essential skill. We don’t have maps for the territory of tomorrow. As a result, all citizens must become explorers of this emerging world. The best way to prepare for the emergence of the future is to learn how to be comfortable with uncertainty. To be comfortable with uncertainty, one must remain fluid, receptive and creative — in a word: playful.”  Joichi Ito in The Power of Play in Learning

Both what Joichi Ito says and what Takaharu Tezuka’s does make me wonder how do you scale play according to age? and that question leads me to another question that maybe I should be asking first: should we even scale play based on age? why or why not?

This week I spent some time in our early childhood area of campus, simply watching kids do just what we are reading about. I saw kids problem solving, collaborating, inventing, imagining, compromising, socializing, struggling, planning, exploring, analyzing, adapting, rethinking, observing, processing, verbalizing, failing, experimenting, and persevering to name a few. I was in awe of how these skills were second nature to these four and five year olds and how they practiced them with such enjoyment.

And so as a teacher of grade 5, I walked back to the upper elementary section of our campus and thought of my students who will be entering the world of middle school in a few short months, and I couldn’t help but mourn the loss of that unstructured exploration. Our students in the upper elementary play, but their play is structured. Structured by curriculum, by teachers, by assessments, by peers, by after school activities . . .

And so once we are aware of this shift in how we allow kids to play as they grow up, then do we redefine play as Bud Hunt does? He says, “Play, then, is finding freedom in the face of constraint.” Is that how play changes as we age? Is that true for us as adults? Do we play by pursuing and enjoying freedoms within certain constraints? If so, why is that? Should it be that way? If it shouldn’t be that way, then how do we reverse that shift marked by aging and return to the unstructured play of Takaharu Tezuka’s kindergarten as adults, as college students, as high schoolers, as middle schoolers, as 5th graders? Maybe a clue lies in Joichi Itos’ original statement: “one must remain fluid, receptive and creative — in a word: playful.”


So what floats to the surface for me, amongst many wonderings, is: how can we lead classrooms to “remain fluid, receptive, and creative” places of learning as students progress through the grades?



5 Replies to “Aging Play”

  1. Your article and especially the embedded video really struck a chord with me. I loved the footage of the kids climbing, peering through skylights, and of course running and running in circles on the roof of the school. I had to laugh at the girls running with the baton, the kid putting water in a boot, and the little boy who logged 6 km of running–they reminded me of myself at that age. What a wonderful setting where kids are allowed and even encouraged to do what comes naturally, rather than forced into settings and behaviors that adults think is appropriate! I did find myself wondering what kind of curriculum is followed at the school, if they do any academics or it is mostly guided play or Montessori type learning, but in any case, it’s a great example of how the architecture and physical setting of a space can influence how people use it and learn. I know that after a six kilometer run, water splashing, and tree climbing session, my five year old self would have been much more ready to sit down and, say learn to read. Have you seen the Flipbook article about the Danish high school designed for e-learning? I think it’s a good example of how school spaces can be redesigned to reflect a more tech-embedded and student-centered approach to learning.

    In terms of play for older kids and adults, I think we could start by looking at what those age groups naturally do as play and how we could design classrooms and schools to incorporate elements of it. When I was an elementary student our recess centered around an enormous play structure erected by the PTA out of scrap lumber, chains. and tires. It was nearly 300 yards away from the building so just getting there required a goodly run; it took at least five minutes to traverse the whole thing and the best feature was a network of platforms that small groups and individuals could claim as their own for imaginative play, conversation, or just quiet daydreaming. I’ve never seen anything quite like that since (although SSIS does have a cool rope structure called the Spider Web that kids similarly use for imaginative play and hanging out) but I think it’s an awesome idea for anyone up to Grade 5 or even Grade 8. Maybe we need to expand our definition of play to include electronic games, sports, improvisational drama, art, MakerSpaces, Genius Hour or Passion Projects, even playful aspects of academics like free writing and challenging math games. I’m curious what kind of building Tezuka might have designed for an elementary, middle, or high school, or even for adults.

  2. Thanks for the reflective post. A not so old memory was brought back (or floated to the surface of my consciousness). Some years ago when I was teaching and learning in Paraguay, I went on regular runs with a friend who taught Kindergarten. He is a clever, witty guy with whom it is really fun to run. We got to know the ins and outs of Asunción through running, most of the time giggling at ongoing jokes and observations made. One day I noted how much I really looked forward our outings, and how strange it was that I found our long runs (up to three hours or more….often) fun. He scoffed at me and asked me if I had been paying attention to what kids do at recess. They run all over the place, all of the time. I still run (play), it keeps me balanced mentally, physically, and emotionally. I learned a lot those years in The Guay.

    I hadn’t yet read the Bud Hunt blog you to which you referred, so I did, which led me to revisiting Maslow, which reminded me of Krashen’s Affective Filter. While Krashen applies his theory to language acquisition, I think it can be considered when thinking about learning in general. So, if playing games promotes a state of well being, one engaged in play is ripe for learning (or is learning). As you well know, there is an overwhelming amount of material this week in the recommended readings about play and gaming. I find it almost amusing. Who needs to be convinced?

  3. Good question – one I think lots of us struggle with. And as we get higher and higher in the educational system, the constraints get tighter and tighter. Would love to hear your thoughts on how that could work!

  4. The first line is spot on. I enjoyed the link that you gave and saw that Ito is a part of the MIT Media Lab and realized that it is the group that made Scratch! It all makes sense seeing as programming is all about creating, playing and exploring.
    As one small part or many answers to your final question, programming offers a way to keep
    “problem solving, collaborating, inventing, imagining, compromising, socializing, struggling, planning, exploring, analyzing, adapting, rethinking, observing, processing, verbalizing, failing, experimenting, and persevering to name a few.”
    I’m seeing the same -ing with my small Middle school Minecraft club ( I hope that this spirit is alive as we introduce Alice ( next year and our new High school CS course will involve Lego NxT robots (
    I want to make sure that the fundamentals of programming are understood. Beyond the fundamentals, I don’t know that I should be the one to decide the direction that the courses go. As long as students are ‘playing’ with programming and creating, I am happy to follow them to whatever challenges, learning opportunities, there are.

    Now, how do we address the question with a different subject?


  5. You know, you reminded me of something my lower school principal always says. In lower school we do not have homework, just home learning projects on subjects that the students pick out themselves, so often teachers or parents come up to hime and ask him about giving them more “structured” homework so they can go to middle school “better prepared” and he always tells them “the upper schools need to adapt to us, and the inquiring children we are sending them and not the other way around”. Which is funny because it is often the discourse we hear in some High Schools about college, for the sake of what we think may/may not be the expectation for students some place else, we can often sacrifice practices that we know are good for the whole child and their social-emotional well being. Thanks for sharing this video, I really loved how this guy presents things.

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