Play and libraries

Libraries focus so much on the serious side of research, (though in actuality many librarians I know have a great sense of humor), that perhaps we neglect the role of play in learning and creative thinking. (Past the elementary level, that is).

After spending some time yesterday in an online blog discussion of Whole New Mind with Maura Moritz’s classes at Arapahoe High School, I decided to take another look at the book’s chapter on play, a topic which has been on my mind quite a bit.

To begin with, I’ve been toying around in with several books, including the Artist’s Way, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, and Living Out Loud: Activities to Fuel a Creative Life by Keri Smith. (While it is more of a women’s self-help book, it does have some creative ideas for stirring up your sense of play that could be translated to the classroom or library.)

Too often we assign research from a very serious “non-play” direction. We ask students to “choose topics from a list” or we assign the topics, or we ask them to “pick an issue to research.” And sometimes students don’t engage much of themselves personally in their research when using this kind of approach.

So I’ve been wondering about how to incorporate play into research as a way of tapping into more creative serendipitous approaches.

I decided to follow some of Dan Pink’s resource list and discover a few resources of my own as well.

Some interesting leads shared by Dan Pink:

LaughterYoga — Pink shares Dr. Madan Kataria’s work on establishing Laughter Clubs. As Pink points out, “just plain laughter can lead to joyfulness, which in turn can lead to greater creativity, productivity, and collaboration.”

Invention At Play is an exhibit about play and invention, which includes playful online activities, videos and articles about play, and an exploration of inventors.

Other resources he suggests include museum sites (I like the San Jose Tech Museum myself which is hosting a contest) and brain exercise sites(how about these games?)

Now I’m not really suggesting that having a laughing attack with your class in the library or playing little brain games will directly improve their research project, but we always approach research so darned seriously. “We are now starting our research project which is very important”–giving dire warnings to students about the seriousness of it.

But as author Diane Ackerman points out, “Play is our brain’s favorite way of learning.”

So, how do we approach teaching research with a sense of play? For one thing, developing our own sense of play and creativity can help. (See my previous post on artist’s dates).

Other ideas–

Ask students to record their “odd questions” for a few weeks–weird things they wonder about. Have them select one of those for their research.

Often the best books take an original approach–for example in Know-It-All, author Jacobs attempts to read the entire Britannica encyclopedia A to Z. Shows like Ace of Cakes showcase unusual cakes. Challenge students to take an original approach to their research–research a particular skateboard manufacturer if they are into skateboards, research an author’s use of flowers in a literary text, research the connection between two different historical figures, research Civil War enacters–something outside the box with some clever and unique twist.

Let student research grow out of their own unique interests.

We can also approach the process more light-heartedly. Think of all the scientists and inventors who discovered things by play and tinkering. The best scientists spend their whole lives asking why, often in a playful fashion, trying to figure out how things work. They trip over their life’s work by asking questions.

Sure, research can lead to serious places, but if students approach it with curiosity and openness, then they are open to what they find. So how to encourage that sense of play and openness in how we teach research?

1. Make it about exploration, not “work” and not “seriousness.”

2. Help students brainstorm questions, ideas, serious and silly ones.

3. Help them think outside the box. In Living Out Loud, the author suggests that you cut out a small paper frame, hold it up and look at things through the frame–the outdoors, magazine covers, people, etc…and try to “see” differently. Have them take a newspaper headline on something they want to research and cut it into pieces, and draw a word out of a hat from the headline to focus in on.

4. Have them keep a seeing journal or a listening journal. Have them do this with the news, for example, or with the outdoors if you teach biology. This is a Zen buddhist meditation practice–to spend ten minutes just listening, for example, or just looking, or just smelling, while tuning out the other senses. It clears the mind and also helps us focus on what we aren’t really seeing or hearing because of all the other interfering senses. See what they notice and what can be brought into their research.

5. In gratitude journals, people often are advised to give thanks for small things. Small things can also be the source of research ideas. How are our shoes made? How does a strawberry get from Chile to our table? How did the home keys on our computer keyboards get developed? How does our favorite mug get from China to our kitchen cabinet?

6. Incite their curiosity with how much and how many questions–how many people in their town have cars? go to school? subscribe to the newspaper? How does this affect the economics of the businesses related to the questions?

7. Have them draw pictures of things they are interested in WITHOUT censoring themselves. Have them let their pencils spontaneously start drawing and see what happens–brings out what is lurking in the right brain.

8. Do some brainstorming “lists” with a timer on–Two minutes to list what your interests are. Two minutes to list countries you want to visit. Two minutes to list political issues you are interested in, etc. This silences their inner censors, and spontaneous interests just float to the top.  (Thanks to Artist’s Way for this idea)

9. Really direct students with lots of why questions. If they start on a topic, say “but why….” and when they come back with some answers, ask “but why…” again. Keep pressing on that curiosity.

10. Invention–focus on invention as they begin their research. There is a problem, how would they develop a solution? To world hunger? To poverty? To techno-overload? To too much gaming? To political issues? How could they be creative in coming up with a solution beyond the obvious? Who would be involved in this solution? What if the sky were the limit?

11. Have them write down a list of things they know already about their topic and then tear them up. Have them start with what they don’t know.

12. Approach the paper/research assignment with curiosity yourself. DO the research yourself. There is no substitute for you experiencing what they are experiencing. Be curious yourself–throw out the textbook, throw out the preconceived ideas, throw out last year’s list of topics. Just ask yourself what you really want to know. (It’s hard, isn’t it? So use some brainstorming tools to get yourself jump-started).

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”

George Bernard Shaw

Next on the topic of play–play and designing library spaces.

3 thoughts on “Play and libraries

  1. Great ideas. I’m taking SLM classes right now and we’re doing an I-Search, based on a book by Tallman and Joyce. It’s a way to make research more engaging by letting the students explore questions more meaningful to them and seems to go along with many of your thoughts here.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *