The play's the thing

17th September 2004 at 01:00
Texting and computer games may seem like idle triviality but for energetic children the world teems with possibilities, says Pat Kane

I'm sure it must seem funny to teachers when they hear their profession being dragged through the "work-life balance" debate. Wasn't it always the homework-no life imbalance for them?

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

There is a particular problem around bringing in the next wave of teachers from the career-sceptical, media-savvy Generations X and Y. Indeed, the coming advertising blitz from south of the border has had to pitch teaching as being about humour, innovation and unpredictability . This is said to be way better than "working in an office with boring people".

Yet it strikes me, as an outsider from the world of creative consultancy, 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 and commitments. In short: do teachers truly realise the power and potential of play?

Of course we do, might come 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 kids ready for the "labour markets of the future"?

Rather well, actually. In my experience, the most hard-nosed commercial organisations are literally obsessed with play. Most enterprises these days aim to become "learning" organisations - responsive, self-aware and brimming over with ideas. Much of this learning 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 very profits and market share depend on the quality of their internal "players", isn't that enough credibility to allow teachers to develop those playful instincts in their children? Perhaps a "teacher of players" might also attract those who would otherwise deploy their innovative urges in a more commercial setting.

This partly depends on whether teaching itself can deromanticise play. For play is more than merely 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 comes from Friedrich von Schiller who said play was about "taking reality lightly". This doesn't mean living in fantasy, but seeing the world as open to change and chance - and being inspired by that mentality.

Engaged, energetic children, who see a world teeming with possibilities and opportunities: if these are players, what teacher wouldn't want to unfold their talents? From enterprise to citizenship to creativity, it seems to me that play -properly and profoundly understood - can provide some degree of underlying coherence to these often scattered and piecemeal initiatives.

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, thumb-texting and computer-generated movies, thrill sports and karaoke pop, job-hopping and cheap travel, seems to have made a collective decision to just keep on playing - and, at the very least, be sceptical about the automatic virtues of the work ethic.

Teachers can dragoon these "soulitarians" into line. Or they can try to make the most of their evident 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 some sixties hippy 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, price pound;12.99. For more information, please visit

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