November 21, 2020

Play is the Companion of Scholarship

To put it simply, just as healthy children play, so good scholars must too. And play must not be reserved just for weekends or vacation, but integrated into the way we think about our work.

Play is the Companion of Scholarship

When I was little my mom would, now and then, declare a "fog day". Growing up in Colorado, morning fog was rare. Most humidity was burned off by early morning, even in the winter, and so most days dawned with visibility for miles. But now and then we'd wake up and a grey of fog hung outside our windows.

At the time, I and my family lived in northwest Boulder, in a little area called Gunbarrel. That sort-of-suburb had not, in my youth, been developed, and our apartment complex (the name of which was "Habitat", which makes my whole youth sound like a metaphor) sat alone surrounded by weedy wild fields that in the winter were sallow and barren, and in the summer were high with verdure that leaned and swayed over my head when I and my brother went exploring. Just to the north of my family's townhouse was a long flat stretch used to grow grasses for hay; and to the south, the tangle of weeds and cottonwoods that formed the setting for so many games and play.

I grew up surrounded by a wild mostly wild for lack of development, with snakes and wolf spiders the silent audience to my adventures. I was almost always outside. I was almost always covered in dirt, or pollen cast down from tall weeds, or brittle hay stuck in my trousers and hair. Even as a good student, play was at the middle of my life, imagination always its companion.

When the weather didn't permit, or when it was too dark to go out, I could be found in my bedroom listening to music. Mendelssohn. Beethoven. Mozart. Dvořák. Bach. Fourth grade right through middle school. And the worlds and stories I imagined to those classics deepened in detail and nuance the older I got, the more adulthood threatened to dawn.

It was because imagination was so vital to my growing up that my mom now and then declared fog days. For only when the fog came, rare as a white stag, could fog adventures take place. And so, instead of school, my brother and I would rush out into the dense air, trying to lose ourselves in it before the Colorado sun worked its warmth and the fog disappeared.

Perhaps it might strike devout teachers as odd or event truant that my mom would take me out of school simply for fickle weather, but I believe that play and imagination are a vital, necessary, essential piece of learning. That, in fact, learning cannot happen without play happening, too. Play is the companion of scholarship. We often think that work (scholarly or otherwise) and play are opposites, that they aren't married, but rather in separate rooms of the same house. In truth, they are bunkmates, and one cannot be done without the other.

In her book, Deep Play, Diane Ackerman writes,

Deep play arises in such moments of intense enjoyment, focus, control, creativity, timelessness, confidence, volition, lack of self-awareness (hence transcendence) while doing things intrinsically worthwhile, rewarding for their own sake…It feels cleansing because when acting and thinking becomes one, there is no room left for other thoughts.

"When acting and thinking become one." I am reminded of Paulo Freire's praxis: “reflection and action upon the world" and "a central defining feature of human life and a necessary condition of freedom." But also, as Ronald Davis Glass writes: "human nature...expressed through intentional, reflective, meaningful activity situated within dynamic historical and cultural contexts that shape and set limits on that activity”.

Acting & Thinking
Action & Reflection
Meaningful Activity

How are these not both play and work, play and scholarship, imagination and knowledge, fun and seriousness? One always informs the other informs the other, in a syncopated relationship that produces the new.

Freire's primary objective, and critical pedagogy's aspiration for all of us, is the production of knowledge, because it is in producing knowledge that change is likewise produced, that history is owned by its subjects. In "A few reflections around Utopia," Paulo Freire writes that "As beings programmed for learning and who need tomorrow as fish need water, men and women become robbed beings if they are denied their condition of participants in the production of tomorrow.” And we cannot participate in the production of tomorrow without that syncopation of play and work and work and play.

To put it simply, just as healthy children play, so good scholars must too. And play must not be reserved just for weekends or vacation, but integrated into the way we think about our work.

In her blog post, "Embodying Playfulness", CU Denver instructor Lisa Forbes writes: "I believe we have to fully commit to the power of play to really receive all the benefits it has to offer. I also wonder if embodying playfulness is about congruence, genuineness, and simply not taking yourself so seriously. A big part of being playful is being human and authentic" (emphasis added). The idea of embodying play is, if not ironic, then slippery, because when we are deeply immersed in play, as Ackerman reminds us, we move past self-awareness into a state of reflective interaction with the world around us and the world as it might be otherwise. To embody play, as Lisa describes, necessitates not taking yourself seriously. There's an abandon in play. There should be an abandon in learning. There should be an abandon in scholarship.


A long time ago when I was a graduate student teacher at the University of Colorado Boulder, I took my Intro to Creative Writing class out for a stroll in the new spring weather. The rubric I had given this group of students at the start of the term was simple enough: Think, act, live like a writer—for fifteen weeks. I had once been told by Pulitzer Prize-winner Robert Olen Butler that a writer never looks away, that everything in life should be of interest, no matter how mundane, frightening, strange, bright, or dark. So, in that spirit, I took these students outside with a clear intention: to look at ourselves as we had been children.

We started with a game of hopscotch where, at the end of the chalk pattern—drawn in this case on the flagstone just behind the Mary Rippon theatre—each player must say without thinking a childhood memory that occurred to them in that moment. From there, the students held hands in pairs and we walked through campus as preschoolers might walk through the neighbourhood on a field trip. Until, at the end, we lay in the grass, closed our eyes and I recollected:

"Just this past weekend, I was on a swingset with my daughter. I used to swing a lot when I was a kid, and here I was, my hips barely fitting in the seat, swinging back and forth and singing a song with her. I looked down at my feet as they moved from low to high, now the ground beneath them, now the sky—and I realised: 'These are my feet. These are the same feet I had when I was little. My swinging feet. My running feet. My adventuring in the fog and fields and mountains feet. The same feet.

"'I have never stopped being the child I started out as.'"

And we lay there under the warm Colorado sun, under a cloudless sky, and remembered that not only had our childhoods never really ended, but who we had been as children remained important today. To our craft and to our study.