Deeper Play

Steven LevyDeeper Learning1 Comment

Play is the highest form of research. Albert Einstein

I love when I am invited into schools to do model lessons. I might demonstrate a variety of teaching practices in a range of subjects, but no matter what strategy I focus on, what content we address, the most common response I get from teachers after the lesson is, “The children had so much fun!” It wasn’t that we played games, nor did I employ clever stunts, show videos, or promise rewards. But when teachers observe their children jump off their desks like eagles as they memorize the Tennyson poem, or stomp the rhythms of the number families in math, they remember learning can be truly engaging. Even fun! When they see their students argue passionately over where the four elements can be found in the human body (where is fire?), or which number should be crowned king or queen (with evidence of course!), they remember something their textbook driven, commercial curriculum has failed to provide. What happened to the joy? In students and teachers! Even in classrooms striving for excellence, with sincere and loving teachers – nobody seems to be having much fun learning. It’s all just so serious. Rigorous, or rigor mortis?

I invited one of my own 4th grade classes back after two years in more traditional classrooms to ask what had lasted from their experience in our fourth grade. Toby named it simply and accurately, “We were learning, but it was fun. You don’t usually associate learning with fun.” (See more how students described their learning experience here).

What does he mean, “fun?” What are teachers noticing in the students they describe as “having fun?” They are observing children doing what they have been created to do: delight, wonder, play! When they are at an age where learning capacity and brain development are at their peak, God has given them the drive to maximize that power with the Creator’s best learning tool – play. Play is a central vehicle for learning, not only in young children, but throughout life. Researchers are learning more and more about the functions of play and it’s a critical role in human development, especially for children up to the age of eight. Yet kindergarteners in New York City spend on average 76 minutes a day in literacy instruction, 48 minutes in math, 26 minutes testing or test prep, and less than 30 minutes a day in choice time, the options of which are still often academic.

In the same way we worked hard to rescue “projects” from their fluffy reputation, can we do the same with play? What would “deeper play” look like in the kindergarten? Or “complex imagination” in the 6th grade?

Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play, identifies the following qualities of play:

  • Purposeless – it is done for its own sake, not for some other end. We learn because God created us with a joy for learning – about God and the world God made – not just to get a good grade or a good job.
  • Voluntary – not required by duty. We need to find ways to invite children to exercise their unique gifts, expressed in their God-directed passions. When work aligns with our desire, it feels like an invitation rather than something we are compelled to do.
  • Inherent attraction – it’s fun; feels good. Motivation is intrinsic – not because it is going to be on the test. We need to design projects that invite students to work with God to restore a broken world. “Can we keep working during lunch?” That’s inherent attraction!
  • Freedom from time – lose the sense of time passing. “What, it’s lunch time already?” When we are totally engaged in what we are doing, an hour can seem like a minute. When we are not, a minute can seem like an hour.
  • Diminished consciousness of self – in the zone; “flow.” Don’t we all need to get away from the constant familiarity of ourselves? To be absorbed so fully in the task at hand that we aren’t distracted by what others might think, haunted by the possibility of failure, or bound by the gravity our own default state of mind? Don’t we long to escape the orbit of our own self-center, take a little vacation from our own neuroses?

             The poet, Rumi:

                      What I want is to leap out of this personality

And then sit apart from that leaping –

                      I’ve lived too long where I can be reached.

       (Did he know the invitation of the cross?)

  • Improvisational potential – open to serendipity, chance. Don’t we thrill when something much more important usurps our learning target for the day? I hope so! Real projects addressing real issues inevitably encounter real surprises. The Holy Spirit is full of them. Not much chance for surprise in our predictable text books.
  • Continuation desire – you don’t want it to stop. “Can I stay after school and keep working on this problem?”

Can you see these qualities in kindergarteners at play? Can you see them in a scientist in her lab? An architect in his studio? A mathematician proving a theorem? It’s clear to me that these qualities are not restricted to the kindergarten, but rather should permeate our classes throughout the grades, and then our lives after graduation. Joyful is the one who gets paid to do what he or she loves.

How do these elements of play manifest in your classroom? What are you doing to keep them alive under the pressures of covering all your content, preparing students for high stake tests?


  • Steven Levy

    After 28 years teaching in classrooms K-12, Steven Levy ( is now an educational consultant, working independently and with EL Education. He guides teachers in designing service-based curriculum, engaging instructional practices, student owned assessments, and character development. He was recognized as the Massachusetts State Teacher of the Year (1993), and honored by the Disney American Teacher Awards as the national Outstanding General Elementary Teacher (1995). Mr. Levy was the recipient of the Joe Oakey Award for his national impact on project-based learning, and received the John F. Kennedy Prize for the teaching of history. Mr. Levy and his fourth grade students were designated “Conservation Heroes” by the National Park Service for their study of the effects of a local bike path on the environment and the community. Mr. Levy has written various articles for educational journals, and his book, Starting From Scratch (Heinemann, 1996), details some of the projects and students he has worked with in his elementary classrooms.

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