As instructors, at some point we were taught to “put away childish things.” But if this included play, then we’re missing out on a powerful resource for the classroom.
The latest book by the popular science writer Steven Johnson demonstrates the productivity of play. As Johnson mentioned at a recent visit to Powell’s, his tenth book Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World (New York: Riverhead, 2016) gathers stories and evidence he’s collected from the past two-dozen years that show how the playful side of our species – homo ludens – has led to some of our best inventions.
As Johnson’s work notes, “Everyone knows the old saying ‘Necessity is the mother of invention,’ but if you do a paternity test on many of the modern world’s most important ideas or institutions, you will find, invariably, that leisure and play were involved in the conception as well” (12).
And so we learn how, many hundreds of years ago, humanity’s taste for spices like pepper, cloves, and vanilla drove global exploration and trade (suggesting that globalization was set in motion by something that wasn’t essential, just interesting). Following Charles Eames’s point that “Toys and games are the preludes to serious ideas,” Johnson shows that that dice, bouncing rubber balls, and other games of chance on the one hand help us “rehearse for the randomness that everyday life presents” – but, on the other hand, also led to thoughtful tools like probability theory (706). Humanity’s simple delight in music helped birth such inventions as computer software (from music boxes with songs that could be switched out), and the industrial loom and typewriter (both derived from keyboard instruments).
Johnson further insists we not underestimate the power of spaces given over to leisure. Sites of recreation as city parks, museums, amusement parks, and Ripley’s Believe it or Not foster the kind of unguarded category-mixing that inspires new ideas (as, for example, the 19th century development of the zoo in London influenced Darwin’s theory of evolution). Many great innovations arose not from boardrooms or labs but in taverns and coffeehouses – social spaces of leisure that led to such movements as the American Revolution and LGBT rights.
For Johnson, humanity’s natural inclination toward play means that “You will find the future wherever people are having the most fun” (15).
While Johnson’s Wonderland does not cover pedagogy, he does reference the idea “of college as a time of intellectual play, a time to experiment, to dabble in eclectic interests and attitudes (257-8). College, he suggests, gives students permission – perhaps for the last time in their hyper-specialized lives – to be a dilettante.
Johnson’s confidence in the productivity of leisure made me think through ways we might bring to the serious space of the classroom some of the fizz and flair of our weekend selves. How might we invest our learning spaces with the playfulness of a Brian Doyle sentence?
Given the differences across our university’s broad spectrum of disciplines, as well as variance in what each of us considers fun, faculty will do best figuring out for themselves how to materialize Wonderland’s invitations to serious play. But this surely involves first giving ourselves permission to be our ludic selves – to avoid our usual flatulent formality. It means becoming aware of our personal springs of delight, and channeling them into the classroom. And it means imagining how these playful tasks might foster our curriculum’s learning goals: given our limited classroom time, we have to be selective.
This semester, in courses involving thinking through literature, I’ve drawn from my own leisure explorations of eclectic music to play one song at the start of each class. This sonic pairing encourages lateral thinking through thematic parallels between writing and popular music. To teach writing, I brought in juggling balls to demonstrate how complex actions are dependent on mastering basic repetitive actions. I drew on optical illusions to render abstract ideas more concretely (using, for example, the famous image of a duck/rabbit head to practice how to craft a thesis that can capture an artwork’s complexity). And for one lesson on Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, I placed a cluster of plastic Monopoly hotels and houses on the classroom floor to reinforce the novel’s experiments in scale.
In a course built around the theme of mobility in the world, I’ve been varying students’ placement in the classroom to make a kinesthetic connection. Students are now used to our Mad Hatter’s Tea Party approach, as I have required them to change seats often, face their chairs in various cardinal directions, sit on the floor itself, and one other time stand atop their seats (to experiment with learning in the classroom’s upper altitudes). By disrupting students’ spatial regularity, I’ve been giving them a physical connection with the mobility in the stories we’re reading.
Thinking ahead, I’d like to build more of my lessons around structures of friendly competitions (as the continuing appeal of game shows reveal, we’re all suckers for contests). Group competition generates the kind of drama that disables cynicism and boredom.
Of course, not all playful ideas we dream up will succeed in furthering our curriculum or lead to the kind of innovation Johnson’s book exemplifies. But we can rest confident that the sheer surprise of your approach will make the lesson memorable, and that the presence of joy in the process of learning may foster in students the same spark that got you into the ed. biz. in the first place. Johnson’s Wonderland reassures us of the intellectual power of play.
-Lars Erik Larson, UP English Department
PS: Scholars of serious fun may find interest in other eclectic works by Steven Johnson: the value of bottom-up systems in Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software; The Ghost Map (on the discovery of how cholera spread in 1854 London); The Invention of Air (on Joseph Priestley’s 18th century experiments with gas); Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation; Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter; Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life; and How We Got to Now: Six Innovations that Made the Modern World – which has been made into an engaging six-hour documentary.
Featured image: “Poker Game” by Wobogre, CC0 Public Domain