The best learning, perhaps that is the only learning that sticks, is play. Play adds an element of the unexpected, a heightened attention, and willingness to take a risk. Play frequently involves humor, which lowers stress and coaxes the creative and analytical parts of the brain work to work together. While I suspect play sits at the upper end of Bloom’s taxonomy, it is often physically engaging, pulling all of our being into the here and now. Play, like learning, involves individual and social elements. Most of all, play asks us to acknowledge that we are not perfect and do not have to be. It lets us find happiness in our imperfection. Play seems to me different from fun — something deeper and more authentic than a manufactured activity. (Though I admit to a bias against fun, taken from an Italian college roommate who observed that Americans were obsessed with its pursuit. And it is true that the etymology of “fun” refers to a “cheat, or trick.”) But can a teacher plan playful lessons, or is play too quicksilver and college-prep material too phlegmatic? The interest in the “gamification” of learning shows teachers are trying (as well as some pedagogue’s tin ear) and there are other examples. Peripety is play in narrative. Plato argued that we learn best what we learn with pleasure. Arthur C. Clarke wrote, “[A]ll human activity is a form of play. And the highest form of play is the search for Truth, Beauty and Love. What more is needed?” Well played indeed.
The types of play I am most serious about are the play of words and dance. Metaphor and imagery are captivating, playful, sleight-of-words in Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Constantly Risking Absurdity,” or “Drab habitation of whom,” by Emily Dickinson, and in almost anything by Kay Ryan or Billy Collins. Yet it is not only in literature that a teacher can invite students to play with ideas, to get out of the desks, to notice the unexpected, to take intellectual risks, and to be open to joy. Surely this is what schools — from the Greek, “skol,” leisure — are for.