What if Experimentation & Play Were a Daily Part of the Classroom?

This article is an early draft excerpt from the book, Breathe: A Vision and Framework for Human-Centered Learning Environments, available at Amazon and elsewhere.

“A child who does not play is not a child, but the man who does not play has lost forever the child who lived in him.” -Pablo Neruda

Imagine an activity that can increase productivity at work and school, speed the rate and depth of learning something new, increase well-being and satisfaction, decrease stress, enhance the bonding between two or more people, and strengthen connections and communication with others. With such a long list of benefits, who wouldn’t want to engage in such an activity? The activity that I’m describing is play.

Stuart Brown, a leading expert on the merits of play, argues that, “Play is a basic human need as essential to our well-being as sleep, so when we’re low on play, our minds and bodies notice…” If this is true, then play is certainly not just for children, nor is it best reserved for a special treat. If humans really are designed to crave play, then it is best made a part of our daily lives, and the daily lives of learners around the world.

Yet, there is an ongoing tension about the word play for many people. In both schools and work, there continue to be some who are skeptical about anything that uses the word play. School and work are about productivity and hard work, and people think of play as something different. Turning again to Stuart Brown, he reminds us that, “the opposite of play is not work, it is depression.”

When we diminish the value of play and playfulness in schools and workplaces, where many of us spend a significant part of our lives, we are depriving ourselves and others from something deeply inspiring and invigorating, something that we crave and that helps us to achieve well-being and higher levels of productivity.

While distinct, experimentation often flows out of play and playfulness. In imaginative play, we venture beyond the present world as we see and experience it. We find ourselves experimenting with other possibilities, even if only within the realm of our own minds. Experiments are, in one sense, tests that we conduct to explore some thesis, question, or examine a possibility. They often grow out of a willingness to ask and wonder. Some of the most powerful questions in human history led to both play and experimentation but went on to discovery and transformation.

Ray Bradbury once wrote that, “life is trying things to see if they work.” Ralph Waldo Emerson similarly wrote that, “All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.” While the scientists among us have more narrow definitions for an experiment or what constitutes a good one, it is the orientation toward experimentation that we are talking about here. To experiment is to test something out, whenever possible, in the real world. You have an idea of how things might be, and you conduct one or more experiments. You observe and seek actionable insights that often leads to more experiments.

To experiment is to learn, and it taps into that drive for adventure that we already explored. Every true experiment is an adventure because you are going on a journey, and you don’t know the outcome. Experiments have that measure of wild, curiosity, uncertainty, and mystery; and these are things upon which thrive as people.

You don’t need formal training to start experimenting, although there are many tools that can help. In fact, you’ve been experimenting your entire life. You conducted an experiment the first time that you tried to walk, and each time after that. You experimented when you tried to reach out and touch that intriguing red stovetop. You experimented when you stuck your tongue out to catch your first snowflake, and to figure out how to get your bicycle to stay upright while you pedal it. You conducted an experiment each time that you tasted something new, tried to improve on a video game, or explored people’s reactions to your words and actions. Maybe you didn’t start each of these with a thesis that you were testing, but each of these are expressions of experimentation.

People continue to experiment throughout their lives, but over time we find comfort in that which doesn’t require experimentation. We develop rituals and habits. We find ourselves drawn to safe and stable situations where we are already confident about the outcomes. Think of how often we design classrooms in this same way? Experiments entail risks, and the yearning for safety and security competes with the equally important yearning for novelty, adventure, and learning.

There is nothing wrong with safety, and rituals are rich, beautiful, and meaningful parts of our lives. Or, even when they are not, they serve other useful purposes in our lives. The problem is when the pull for safety and security begins to close us off from the experimenting part of learning.

It helps to make experimentation a more planned and intentional part of the learning community. One way to do this is through what I call life experiments. These are simple experiments intended to test out new practices, ideas, and activities. For example, if you find yourself struggling with negativity, what if you conducted a simple experiment for 10 days in a row where you end each day writing down three things that went well and why. This particular “experiment” comes from Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, finding that something as simple as this can greatly improve the optimism and sense of well-being for many people. Of course, you don’t know if it will work for you unless you try it, perhaps you can test it out for 10 days and see for yourself. You can do the same thing with experiments around building new relationships, setting and achieving goals, managing your time, or getter better at a hobby or a skill for work. Now imagine a classroom or learning community of students who are persistently creating simple experiments for themselves and others, gaining new experiences and insights, and using that to learn and grow in new ways.

Some students will be hesitant, not having engaged in this sort of playfulness or experimentation. Here are three simple suggestions to help them get started. First, have them begin with exploring something that they want to understand or improve, or a problem that they want to solve. Maybe they want to better understand how to make money, get along with a sibling, improve a skill in a sport, address a troubling social issue, or how to develop a new skill.

Next, create a context or where they can read, talk to people, watch documentaries and YouTube videos, and gain some new knowledge about the area of interest. As they learn and explore, they will start to find possibilities and practices that intrigue them. That is where we go to step two. Have each student create a simple, time-based experiment that allows them to learn, through direct experience, how that practice or possibility might work in their life or the world. For example, several years ago, Martin Seligman and others popularized findings of a study that revealed the power of a simple bedtime practice. Before going to sleep, write down three things that went well that day and why. I read this and decided to give it a try. I committed to doing it daily for 4 weeks. At the end of each day, I also wrote down how I felt: bad, okay, good, or amazing. At the end of the four weeks, I went back, reviewed my “what went well?” statements, and I tallied up how many days I felt bad, okay, good, and amazing. I probably should have recorded how I felt daily for a month before starting the experiment. I didn’t. Regardless, the pattern was clear. In week 1 of my little life experiment, I felt bad two days, okay on four days, and good on one day. At the end of week four, I felt bad one day, okay one day, good three days, and amazing on two days. For my personal sense of well-being, that was a great outcome, so I decided to continue with the practice or different versions of it, which leads to the third suggestion.

Once students identify something to explore and conduct their personal experiment, they can make it their goal to gain actionable insight about themselves, the topic, the problem, or the world. It isn’t simple about whether it worked or not. There are lessons to be learned regardless of the outcome. This is where some form of personal reflection is valuable. This can be as simple as posing a few questions to oneself and pondering them. I tend to create times throughout the experiment for reflection, dedicating a more extended time at the end. In addition, I always include some sort of question like, “What next?” In other words, now that I completed this experiment, what do I want to do with the insights? I might continue the experiment, make some adjustment to my life in some way, or get an idea for a new or related experiment. 

This should be fun, even playful. They are exploring and experimenting. Some might enjoy inviting others to join them in creating and conducting personal life experiments, sharing their lessons and insights along the way. Others might prefer keeping them private. Learners can chart their own course. I’m offering a few suggestions, but engage the learners to decide what to do, when to do it, and how to do it.

In some ways, this recipe approach might feel “industrial” in nature. As I’ve mentioned before, those are not bad values. We just need to gain control of them and make sure that we are prioritizing and celebrating the deeply human-centered ones. That is what we are doing here. We are creating a recipe that helps you prioritize more experimentation and play in your life.

By adding more play and experimentation in our learning communities, we are embracing a sense of possibility, and possibility breeds hope and a deeper sense of meaning. As Paul Rogat Loeb wrote, “Possibility is the oxygen upon which hope thrives.”

Here are a few questions for further consideration:

  • How much do learners presently play and experiment in the classroom or learning community?
  • What are simple ways for learners to engage in the content or learning goals through structured or unstructured play?
  • How can we infuse more playfulness into the classroom or learning community? What ideas might students have for this?
  • How can I invite learners to take a posture of experimentation about their own learning, but also about seeking understanding of other things that are important in their lives?
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