Play's the thing to catch new teachers

Pat Kane

I'm sure it must seem funny to teachers that their profession is being dragged through the "worklife balance" debate. Wasn't it always the homeworkno-life imbalance for them?

Yet like any occupation in the information age, education has to deal with the growing dissatisfaction of ever smarter, more worldly employees, chafing under regimes that don't express their full selves. And in the public sector, as evidenced by its endemic staffing crises, everyone knows that a vocation isn't enough any more.

There is a particular problem bringing in teachers from the career-sceptical, media-savvy Generations X and Y. Indeed, the coming advertising blitz from the Teacher Training Agency has had to pitch teaching as being about humour, innovation and unpredictability. This, says the agency, is better than "working in an office with boring people".

Yet it strikes me that there is an amazingly underused resource in education culture. A tradition and expertise, with a centuries-old legitimacy, which could both attract people to the profession, and help existing professionals to re-imagine the nature of their labours. Do teachers truly realise the power and potential of play?

Of course we do, might be the reply. From Rousseau to Montessori to Reggio Emilia, there is a wonderful tradition of valuing child's play, its explorations and immersions, as a learning method. But play often gets downgraded as the educational residue of those "'progressive Sixties values" that exercise Prime Minister Tony Blair at the moment.

How does play get children ready for the labour markets? Rather well, actually. In my experience, the most hard-nosed organisations are obsessed with play. Most enterprises these days aim to become learning organisations - responsive, self-aware and brimming over with ideas. Much of this comes through staff development exercises that are forms of play: theatre, visualisation, music, mind games, adventure trips, scenario planning.

If Unilever and Microsoft believe that their profits depend on the quality of their "players", isn't that enough credibility to allow teachers to develop those playful instincts in their children? Perhaps "teacher of players" might also attract those who would otherwise use their innovative urges in a more commercial setting.

This partly depends on whether teaching itself can de-romanticise play. For play is more than freedom and anarchic self-expression. The Indo-European root of play - dlegh - means '"to engage, to exercise oneself". Almost the polar opposite of the idle triviality imputed to it by more than 200 years of the Puritan work ethic. The other definition I love is from Friedrich von Schiller, who said play was about "taking reality lightly". This does not mean living in fantasy, but seeing the world as open to change and chance.

As complex mammals, we begin our lives as players, in order to survive and develop. Our current generation, in its embrace of PlayStation and Google, texting and computer-generated movies, job-hopping and cheap travelling, seems to have made a collective decision to keep on playing - at the very least, to be sceptical about the virtues of the work ethic. Teachers can either dragoon these "soulitarians" (as I call them in my book) into line.

Or they can try to make the most of their capacities.

Released from the traditional chores of teaching, teachers could begin to unleash their pedagogical imaginations, as well as get a life beyond the classroom. Might I suggest that one challenge could be a vision of an education for players rather than workers? For the moment, going by reports on creativity in primary teaching with titles like Expecting the unexpected and Excellence and enjoyment, there would seem to be fair wind for experiment.

What teachers might need to realise is that their long-standing commitment to play - using the child's own creative energies and instincts to bring out their potential - isn't an embarrassment to hide from the inspectors.

Instead, it might be the tissue that connects them to the most vital social, cultural and technological dynamics of our times. It's time for teachers to think of themselves as players, in the toughest sense of the word.

Pat Kane's The play ethic: A manifesto for a different way of living, is published by Macmillan. For more information go to

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Pat Kane

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