There’s a risk in reading a book with, or showing a movie to, my kid: Depending on how compelling the story, he’ll ask you to “play” it over and over again in the week or so after. In the picture for this post (from 2007), for example, he’s building the Trojan Horse, having just finished reading a children’s version of the Trojan War.
As a grad student, when asked about a new book or topic or whatever, like many people I’d say, “I don’t know: I haven’t written about it yet.” If you ask my kid the same question, you might well get, “I don’t know: I haven’t played it yet.” I don’t think this is unusual in any way. In fact, Stuart Brown has recently explained in Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Invigorates the Imagination, and Opens the Soul, it’s how children figure out the world:
Play’s process of capturing a pretend narrative and combining it with the reality of one’s experience in a playful setting is, at least in childhood, how we develop our major personal understanding of how the world works. We do so initially by imagining possibilities–simulating what might be, and then testing this against what actually is.
Though this may be seem to be a primarily childish trait, close examination of adult internal narratives (our stream of consciousness), reveals something similar. Our adult imaginations are also continually active, predicting the future and examining the consequences of our behavior before it takes place. . . . The genius of play is that, in playing, we create imaginative new cognitive combinations. and in creating those novel combinations, we find what works. (36-37)
Brown’s research suggests that adult play can drive learning in ways that conventional tasks may not. And so I’ve become more and more interested in building out space for play during the semester. Two examples:
- Here’s how I have my students play an interpretative game (developed at UVA), called Ivanhoe. Even though most students have played the simplest version of this game, they still have used it to write richer papers than I was getting in the pre-Ivanhoe days. (Alex can probably speak to this a bit.)
- About a year ago, Dan Cohen tried an “experiment in scholarly crowdsourcing,” in which he asked his Twitter followers and blog readers to identify an artifact. (Part one and two.) In classes where everyone has an iPod, I’ll sometimes do an in-class version of this experiment as a game.
Whether your point of reference is Miss Havisham or Lacan’s superego, there’s something a bit paradoxical about requiring students to play. And yet, I have found that having assignments that are marked off as “games” can free students to think more alertly about class material. The game format frees them to make connections or to try arguments in ways that would seem uncomfortable in a formal paper. And in semesters where I sequence my assignments properly, the game comes first, so that students can use the skills they’ve developed in the game to begin to write in a more formal way.
How about you? Do your classes incorporate play? Have great game tips? Let us know in comments.
Image by me. Do you know what kills me about this picture? That we’re reading The Iliad AGAIN right now (in the Fagles translation), switching off halfway through each book. He’s 6, and has heard that translation in its entirety three times, plus various children’s versions, such as Black Ships Before Troy, multiple times as well. He’s obsessed with Homer–has even written his own version of The Iliad. If I thought there were going to be jobs in the humanities in twenty years, maybe I’d encourage him to be a classicist . . . .