Play? In College?

Ann M. Pearson

Play isn’t the first word you think of when you consider earning a college degree. This is serious business, people! Settle down and get to work. Put your nose to the grindstone (whatever that is), shoulder your burdens, gut it out, accept the yoke (again—what does this mean to our students who may not even know what an oxen team is let alone know how to yoke them together). We seem to throw out a lot of images and phrases that may or may not have encouraged us as students oh-so long ago when we pontificate to students about the intrinsic value of hard work. And while learning to work hard and persevere is important, do we overdo it sometimes?

Is it possible to learn and succeed without the drudgery and seriousness we associate with work? Can work be effective, efficient, and even profitable, (however that trait is defined for the workplace concerned) if the workers are playing? When people play (as opposed to work) they are engaged and focused. They want to play, and they often dedicate significant time to whatever it is they want to accomplish when they play. Work and play are two distinct things, critics claim. Maybe, just maybe, though, all these work-alcoholics had it wrong all this time. Could play be the answer to working better not harder or all the other catchy quotes we toss about regarding this brave new world? We’ve all heard about places like Google and Facebook where ping-pong nets stretch across conference tables and gaming consoles are strategically positioned for downtime. Doesn’t that waste a lot of time? Or does it?

Play can involve a great deal of intense concentration. Often play incorporating elements of competition. And very significantly, play often involves failure. For instance, many web-based games of skill have multiple, increasingly difficult levels. Players work toward achieving each successive level and wouldn’t think of quitting the game altogether just because they failed one level—even repeatedly. Contrast that perseverance to students in college or workers in a business. Often failure represents the end. Failing in these situations traditionally does not inspire renewed confidence, a sense of almost succeeding, or a possibility of eventual success. Failing, usually, in school or business, is not a desired outcome. While we don’t want to be flippant about failed classes or businesses, we could learn valuable lessons about how to succeed by examining play more carefully.

Not only does play allow for do-overs, it almost demands them. Play allows participants to take time to reflect, strategize, experiment, and succeed. No one can predict a baseball game in one inning or a football game in the first quarter. And we shouldn’t try to predict student achievement based on one test or one assignment early in the semester.

Renowned play expert Donna Donnelly of Life Guides, Inc., sees the connection between learning and play as a natural and effective combination: “Humans are emotional beings and the stronger the emotion associated with information, the more likely it is to be remembered. Stress associated with forced learning, like cramming for exams, prevents the new content from finding a place in our long-term memory. We might be able to pass a test that way, but we won’t be able to bring up the information to really use later. Play, on the other hand, creates positive memories connected to learning.”

At San Jacinto College, we realize we have a limited amount of time to accomplish all the learning outcomes we have for our students. A semester can fly by, but we schedule multiple opportunities for students to engage in low-stakes attempts to master difficult material. Rest assured, we’re not playing around here. We simply investigate every approach that may help us help our students. This one allows for faculty to coach students and give feedback and for students to make corrections—a good recipe for eventual success.

Dr. Ann M. Pearson is Assistant Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at San Jacinto College (TX), where she’s currently working with Accreditation & Assessment. She was an English faculty member for 25 years, with 7 of those at SJC. She occasionally returns to the SJC English Department as an adjunct faculty member.

Originally published as a Faculty Voices Project blog post on September 11, 2017.