Cognitive tools: Play

Play helps us to free ourselves from objects with which our behavior is often fused, as in, say, a classroom. By “playing school,” for example, children can enlarge their understanding of the norms and limits of school behavior and get pleasure from parodying what previously had been a world in which they were constrained. Play can also enlarge students’ self-control, and their understanding of the importance of self-control. In play they learn they cannot act by impulse but have to follow rules, and they can pretend to cry while getting pleasure from the pretense.

There are many books and articles about the importance of play in, so we don’t need to repeat the wisdom about its educational uses you will find better expressed elsewhere. Briefly, though, in terms of “cognitive tools,” play can develop a wide array of symbolic functions. Perhaps most useful are those fantasy games children elaborate themselves: taking roles, spinning imaginary worlds, gossiping endlessly as they do so, making contractual arrangements about rules, and just having a really good time. One crucial value of play is the way it releases the mind to reflect back on the world. Again, it is a tool that develops that “meta-level” of thinking; it helps us to think about the world in a way freed from the constraints that the world’s normal forms, behavior, and everyday purposes imposes on us.

In play we also learn crucial capacities of self-control. Having taken on a role, we cannot respond except in that role. If we are playing a witch, we have to do evil, while at the same time recognizing it as evil; we can’t casually switch to being heroic. The subtlety and variety of developments that can take place as a result of giving much opportunity for play need no elaboration here. It is a cognitive tool of immense value and varied forms.

Electronic “play,” which is working hard, to some people’s profit, to disrupt this immensely valuable negotiated play among children has been described as “fast food for the imagination.” Over-indulged—which doesn’t take much—it has similar effects on the arteries of the imagination.

In the imaginative classroom we will expect to see much more play than is currently common. The kind of play, whether board game, inventive, competitive, exploratory, puzzle-based, etc. will depend a lot on the literacy skill we aim to develop.

Give me a few quick example of how I might use Play in literacy classes.

  • While it takes a little while to prepare, a typical Treasure Hunt activity can both provide a lot of fun and teach various literacy skills. The fun and learningqueasily reward the relatively brief time preparing a hunt requires. It works best if the teacher can arrange beforehand to have access to parts of the school no-one else will be using at the time planned for the hunt, so the library and gym or wherever can be part of the territory in which the hunt is to take place, and also, in appropriate conditions, the outside. The hunt is for an unspecified treasure, but can be anything the teacher thinks is suitable—a book, candies, candies and book, sticker, or whatever the teacher knows will be prized by the students. The “treasure” need not be anything very substantial because most of the fun is in the hunt. The teacher needs to prepare a set of clues on slips of paper that will be hidden around the school. The clues need to be written in a form that will challenge but not be too advanced for the partaking students. For very young children a word and picture might be sufficient. The class might be broken into small groups of four and each group will be given the first clue that will lead them, when they decipher it towards the second, which will lead them to the third. It is often best to have the final clue that leads to the treasure bringing them back to the classroom they started from. Well done, a treasure hunt can keep the students busy deciphering text and clues for quite some time. Occasionally, one or other group might need a little help. The children can then be given the chance in their groups to devise their own treasure hunts that the other children in the class can go on.
  • Dramatic play is one of the commoner forms in which literacy activities can be used to engage students, and adults. Take a story all the students know—like Three Little Pigs, Golilocks, or Cinderella, or another story suitable in the class is of older students, and say you want to make a film of the story—which any teacher can easily do with an iPhone or a movie camera. But preparing the film is where most of the literacy skills are engaged. Parts will need to be allotted for the movie, and also roles in designing the set and the filming schedule and so on. It will be easily possible to find enough roles for all the students in the class. In groups, students can compose and write the dialogue, others can plan the shooting schedule, using a simple sequence of events set of boxes to block the action. One might in addition, or alternatively, plan and play a news report of the events of the story, as it might be presented on TV, including shots from the movie.
  • Another form of dramatic play is to design in a corner of the classroom aversion of an institution the students will be familiar with. It could be a garage, a post-office, a restaurant, or whatever. The preparation by the teacher might include some very general items that indicate the function of the place. If we choose a restaurant, then maybe a small table or two with cloths or paper covering and some simple knives, forks and spoons laid out. The children can be engaged to be the waiters, cooks, servers, and customers. Each of them will be involved in some literacy activities—like writing menus, reading menus, reading orders for the food, writing the orders, and so on. For very young children these activities can take a very simple form, in which the menus might be composed of squiggles with an attempt as a sketch of the food. The composition of the menu might be done in public, so that the diners will know what the squiggles mean as they “read” them, and the waiters will take related squiggles down on their pads. Older students can, of course, manage something closer to the actual restaurant’s reliance of forms of literacy for many of its main activities.  Children expand their knowledge of the world outside by engaging in such play and learning the normal conventions of the institution, such as a restaurant, and also they learn about literacy, and its importance for all kinds of practical purposes at the same time.
  • Another simple game is to divide the class into groups and play spies and codes. This works best after the teacher will have given a lesson on various codes and their “keys.” The class can be broken into groups of three or four and the teacher tells them the secret they are to keep hidden. (Depending on the teacher’s wishes, this can be a simple message about the school, about a celebrity, or about an historical character, or the teacher might set up a scenario and the coded message will be a crucial piece of information in solving a dilemma or problem.) The job of each group then is to put their secret into a code so that even if a spy captures their coded message the “enemy” will not be able to work out its meaning. One of the students from another group then gets to “steal” the secret code of one of the other groups, till each group has someone else’s message. Each group then has the job of decoding the other group’s message. (You can even find a series of codes and their clues and solutions on many internet sites, and even the CIA website has a neat set).

How else can we employ play in teaching literacy?

Here we will give a series of examples of how a teacher can use and develop students’ literacy capacities in everyday classrooms, associating “play” with many of the other cognitive tools in lesson plans you can use. Click here to link to a variety of lesson ideas.

Some concluding words about play

An anecdote that gives some sense of how one can transform what is often hard work into play by a little imagination concerns the Swiss-born French politician and intellectual Benjamin Constant. Constant’s tutor suggested, when Constant was five, that the two of them should invent a new language together. So the tutor took Constant outside and started inventing names for all the different things that they saw. Constant got very engaged in this process of finding new ways of saying things, and gradually they developed a whole grammar for this new language and even a new writing system to express sounds in the language. It wasn’t until Constant was six that he discovered that he’d learned Ancient Greek. (A similar transformation of work into play was performed by one of Einstein’s teachers, who introduced algebra as all about the hunt for a creature called X, and when you catch it, it has to tell you its name.)