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December 1, 2018
Vol. 76
No. 4

Leading Together / Make Time for Play

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Educator teams need to have a little fun.

School CultureProfessional Learning
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Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning.
—Fred ("Mister") Rogers
Why do we think that when we grow up we have to stop playing? As educators, we know about the value of play. So, why don't we bring more play into our work with colleagues?
I can think of three reasons why educators might shy away from play: First, there's the weighty moral imperative of educating all children. The work that teachers and administrators do is urgent and the impact consequential. Some educators may respond to this sense of responsibility with all-consuming seriousness, believing there is no room to play in this substantial endeavor.
A second reason might lie in the current political climate, in which the teaching profession is under attack. In fights for a fair wage, it has become clear that many do not recognize teaching as professional work with a highly specialized knowledge base. We have seen teaching portrayed as glorified babysitting or a job for those who want paid summers off. Now more than ever, some might say, we need to improve the public perception of ourselves as professionals: We can't be seen playing around or give the impression that our staff work is frivolous.
Third, even those educators inclined toward play might be stopped short by time constraints. While most schools have moved away from the traditional silo structure and made room for teacher collaboration, there is still never enough time for all we need to do. Play can feel like an inefficient use of this scarce resource. We don't want to "waste" time with play.

Benefits of Play

On the contrary, time invested in play is time well spent. Successful organizations in the business sector have shown that play in the workplace can have direct benefits to an organization's outcomes. Play pushes us to think creatively, to consider alternative perspectives, and to look beyond what we assume to be possible. It helps us to have a growth mindset and invites innovation. As Mister Rogers reminds us, "play is serious learning," and research indicates we are more likely to retain the lessons we learn through play.
Play also has an indirect impact on our work. It helps to promote and sustain a work climate that is positive and energized. It contributes to team building, risk taking, and increased trust. In these ways, it improves job satisfaction, which can boost efforts to hire and retain high-capacity team members.
The advantages of play are sorely needed in schools—especially those organized for teachers and administrators to lead together toward equity and excellence. Our lofty goals for succeeding with every student are high and hard, and we know we cannot keep doing the same thing and expect different results. We need to be creative as we change our ways, to remain positive as we experiment, and to persevere without losing morale. A playful workplace can help educators see this challenging, shared work as an intriguing and interesting puzzle, instead of as an impossible task or trick. Fueled by a creative flow, we have a much better shot at educating all students, producing results that validate our work as professionals, and using our time together productively.

Mixing Work and Play

While it's certainly valuable to put work aside to hold a fun retreat, celebrate at a staff party, or host a faculty volleyball game, it's also worth thinking about how play can be incorporated into the everyday work educators do together. Whether collaborating during common planning time, on instructional leadership teams, or within whole-faculty meetings, teachers and administrators can realize the full benefits of their unique and complementary perspectives when they mix work and play. Here are some ideas of what that might look like:
  • Forming a new team? Cover a wall with mural paper and grab some colorful markers. Invite team members to simultaneously draw—using pictures only and without talking!—a vision of what the school will look or feel like when the team is successful.
  • Starting a new project (such as launching a new curriculum or planning a math night)? Hold a talk show: Team members can role-play key stakeholders (such as students, parents, or administrators), while those in the "audience" ask questions about the project and its potential benefits and limitations. (If time allows, assign roles in advance so that staff can solicit feedback from real stakeholders, then use the game to report back.)
  • Time for a meeting break? Take the team's temperature and stretch at the same time: Invite team members to stand up and act out the emoji they are feeling at the moment (it's OK to use a phone to shop for ideas). This activity can produce smiles even if people feel stuck and help them reengage with a positive attitude.
  • Working on an action plan? Form two concentric circles. Each member in the outer circle must "sell" the plan to a partner on the inner circle. Inner circle members get to play "devil's advocate," creatively finding fault with the plan. (They can assume the perspective of specific stakeholders, if appropriate.)
  • Just finished a project? As you look back on the work, ask a question that invites the team to be playful with metaphors. For example, if our team were a candy bar (or a form of transportation or sea animal), which would we be? Members' answers help to reveal their perceptions of team performance, to identify team strengths or opportunities for growth, and to strengthen team identity.
  • End of the term? Imagine that you've been asked to write an article about your team for the local newspaper. What is the team's most important accomplishment or most noteworthy characteristic? Pairs or triads should draft a sensational headline—such as "4th Grade Team Crushes All Records on Family Engagement"—and the first paragraph or two of the article, then share out.
To maximize the value of these games as learning experiences, wrap up with reflection. Was the activity easy or hard, and why? How, if at all, did your thinking change from the beginning to the end? What new ideas, perspectives, or questions do you have? What's one idea you think the team should try during its future work together? Afterward, artifacts of these activities—murals, news articles, photos, or debrief notes—can be posted in a faculty lounge or elsewhere to keep the fun experience and the learning that resulted from it alive.
All of these activities accomplish two things: They challenge team members to take up a creative task and, by loosening things up, they advance the work of the team. As teachers and administrators play together in these ways, they not only increase morale and engagement, they also develop a shared vision of the work, consider different perspectives, and open themselves up to innovative options—which all contribute to more powerful results. They may find themselves laughing together, but they are also doing some serious learning.
End Notes

1 Association for Psychological Science. (2017, October 13). Playing up the benefits of play at work. Minds for Business. Retrieved from www.psychologicalscience.org/news/minds-business/playing-up-the-benefits-of-play-at-work.html

2 Brown, S. (2010). Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul. New York: Penguin.

Jill Harrison Berg is a leadership coach, school improvement consultant, researcher, and writer committed to supporting education leaders to recognize and maximize the critical role of teacher leadership in ensuring instructional equity.

Berg is an educator of leaders at all levels. She began her career in the classroom, teaching students to be leaders who take ownership of their own learning and are a positive influence on others, then moved into supporting teachers and other education leaders to do the same. Berg earned her doctorate at Harvard’s GSE while working as a researcher with the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers. She was one of the first teachers in Massachusetts to become a National Board Certified Teacher.

 

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