Play makes us human & aids learning

Play makes us human & aids learning

Play “is the basis of all art, games, books, sports, movies, fashion, fun, and wonder–in short, the basis of what we think of as civilization. Play is the vital essence of life. It is what makes life lively.”

Brown & Vaughan, Play, 11

Introducing Play in the Classroom

I have a confession to make. I am the crazy professor who brings a beach ball to the first day of my 120-person introductory Digital Humanities (DH 101) course. The reasonable question to ask is: Why on earth would you do such a thing? Well, I do so for a number of reasons, but first let me explain the role the beach ball plays. The activity involves lightly tossing the beach ball high in the air and asking the person who catches it to share something about themselves. Then they, too, toss it high in the air for the next person to catch and so on until I call a halt after a few minutes and the students breathe a sigh of relief. This quick interaction serves as a quirky icebreaker. At UCLA, DH 101 is a large class, huge by the standards of most DH classes, and I want to make it feel as small and personable as possible. As this short activity proceeds, I notice which students duck, which grab the plastic orb either enthusiastically or grudgingly, and how many students are willing to engage.  

Uncertainty and Play

More importantly, the goofy aspect of the activity breaks down at least one of the barriers between myself as a professor and my students by showing them that I can be, and am comfortable being, a little silly. By looking slightly foolish, I make myself more human and therefore more approachable. To me, this is one of the most significant things I can communicate on day one. 

Although brief, this activity is rich with meaning that I don’t want students to miss. Immediately afterward, I facilitate a conversation about the experience, its goals and lessons. Whether or not they explicitly describe it, students clearly demonstrate that they feel uncertain as I send the brightly colored ball sailing amongst them. This sensation, I explain, is an inevitable part of learning, and they will, at some point in the quarter feel uncomfortable and out of their depth–perhaps with the technical aspects of the course or the research process they’re experiencing for the first time or the humanistic lens we ask them to use in their data analysis. 

By nature, this icebreaker is intended to be playful, which is a lesson in itself. After describing in general terms what Digital Humanities is, what they will learn, and the interactive design of the course, I bring out the beach ball. During the subsequent debrief, I then discuss how a playful mindset will both make the course more enjoyable and expand their learning opportunities. We can’t have an ego when we participate in child-like play. We can’t worry about how we look or whether someone will think we are intelligent, witty, athletic, or anything else. The most important feature of play is our imagination. The ego, by contrast, tends to foreclose possibilities that won’t boost it. However, this foreclosure shuts down the possibility of truly marvelous imaginary adventures that would take us to places we might not have dreamed possible before we let our guard down. In a similar way, a playful attitude expands our conception of what is possible when we learn new ideas and skills.

My goal in every class is to help students develop courage to try new things, to experiment, to fail with little to no consequence, and to try again and again and again. Particularly when learning technical skills, a number of students are concerned about “doing something ‘wrong’” or they view unanticipated or seemingly meaningless experimental results as failures rather than useful information or opportunities. Students often begin the course with this mindset and have to actively work to overcome their low tolerance for uncertainty. Therefore, it is my job to create a safe learning environment that invites experimentation, praises the attempt regardless of results, and helps students overcome perceived failure to generate more innovative and insightful questions, methods, and interpretations.

Resilience and Play

Perceived failure is an inevitable part of the learning, creative, and research processes. Productive perceived failure requires not only a safe learning environment, but also resilience. Through its refusal to take disappointing results too seriously, a playful spirit contributes immeasurably to one’s resilience. However, by the time students arrive in my classroom, society and other courses have taught them to feel guilty for playing and that time spent playfully is unproductive and therefore useless. The only socially acceptable forms of play that remain to us are often highly organized, rigid, and competitive. That means that most of us have lost the sensation of directionless play that does not produce winners or losers but rather liberation. Thus, asking adults to play generally results in awkwardness, embarrassment, disgust, or apprehension. By overcoming these misgivings in order to play freely, we open the door to our most innovative and fulfilled selves. (Tomos, “Design/Play”)

What is Play?

So what, precisely, do we mean when we talk about “play”? According to physician Stuart Brown and journalist Christopher Vaughan, the properties of play include:

  • “Apparently purposeless (done for its own sake)
  • Voluntary
  • Inherent attraction
  • Freedom from time
  • Diminished consciousness of self: ‘We stop worrying about whether we look good or awkward, smart or stupid. …’ We experience a state of flow.
  • Improvisational potential
  • Continuation desire” (Brown & Vaughan, 16)

To these properties, Scott Eberle adds six elements: ​​anticipation, surprise, pleasure, understanding, strength, and poise. Distinguished Professor of Sociology, Thomas Henricks identifies the relative unpredictability of play as one of its most important defining characteristics. “Unlike work and ritual, where we want to establish (and feel comfortable with) clearly defined paths of action, play courts the unexpected and various.” (Henricks, 286) 

Why is Play Important in the Learning Process?

The unpredictable nature of play is precisely what I want students to experience and explore in my classes, but it is this very unpredictability that makes it so unnerving for students who are used to strict rules and rigid structures. Nevertheless, the creativity, flexibility, even irreverence that play fosters is exactly what they need when they are learning to code, for example, or discovering the capabilities and possibilities of a new technical platform/software. Students need a certain amount of “devil may care” attitude to push the technology to its limits and beyond, to hack it to serve their purposes, to even begin to dream of using it in an unconventional way. This is crucial in the Digital Humanities because we are often using tools developed for STEM and business applications, not the study of fuzzy, ill-defined, ambiguous human behavior and cultural production. Our approaches to the study of the Humanities ought to be as varied as the creative expressions and human experiences in which we are interested. 


All of human cultural production is the result of play. Yes, it is also the product of diligence, but even the most diligent automaton would never achieve the grace, beauty, and poignancy of a cellist’s performance of Bach’s Cello Suites nor Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.  As Vaughan and Brown note, “The result [of play] is that we stumble upon new behaviors, thoughts, strategies, movements, or ways of being. We see things in a different way and have fresh insights.” Human beings have evolved through play, and we are incomplete without it.

Cited Works

Brown, M.D., Stuart, and Christopher Vaughan. Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. 1st edition. Avery, 2009.

Eberle, Scott G. “Toward a Philosophy and a Definition of Play.” Journal of Play 6, no. 2 (Winter 2014): 214–33.

Henricks, Thomas. “The Nature of Play: An Overview.” Journal of Play 1, no. 2 (Fall 2008): 157–80.

Tomos, “Design/Play,” Medium (10 January 2018), Accessed 22 May 2024.

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