Other professions play, why shouldn't we?
The idea of work being commensurate with play is not novel. Many a professional athlete, musician, etc., regularly interchange these two words when speaking of their craft. Football players’ ultimate goal is to play and, hopefully win, the Superbowl. A famous rapper once commented he had reached one of his dreams to play his music at the 20,789-seated Madison Square Garden. Similarly, Carnegie Hall is a site where classical music enthusiasts regularly experience energy and awe as they listen to a musician who has likely worked her whole life to play a favorite piece in this prestigious venue. Actors receive Oscar and Golden Globe A-list status for playing roles in movies. With a plethora of open source resources available, why would we continue to deny our students this same experience of work=play in our mathematics classrooms?
Play as an integral part of work does not deny realities of failures and setbacks. Rather, missteps and mistakes are expected as we work hard at playing with what has been called the vocabulary of our intuition, namely, mathematics. There are countless documentaries, articles, biographies and the like, recounting the lives of professional “players”, highlighting the productive struggle necessary to achieve success. Most have endured several instances of contention, debate, brainstorming, risk-taking, failure, and most importantly, problems that needed solving. We have a unique opportunity as mathematics educators to provide an environment fertile for critical and complex thinking experienced as playful mysteries, puzzles, riddles, jokes or other games our imaginations invent. The most exciting math classes are filled with wonder, joy and excitement at tackling new challenges and uncovering patterns previously hidden from our mind’s eye.
In music classes, students learn to play complex pieces of jazz, classical and modern songs. Yet, all too often those same students cringe at the presentation of math tasks with equal complexity. In the most successful music programs, the director does require practice but usually offers a profound sense of purpose and love of the content (widely defined as, but not limited to the history of the composer/singer/musician, the beauty of the patterns within a piece, playfulness of rhythm, etc.) The practice of discrete skills is seen as part, not the end, of the journey to a harmonious oneness of sound and an experience that is motivational, with the potential to touch the hearts and souls of the audience.
Bring in the Joy
What can we do to increase feelings of joy and playfulness in our maths classrooms? First, we must play math for pure enjoyment ourselves. Whether we join Math Teacher Circles, buy puzzles and/or books on the beauty of mathematics in the world around us, play with constructions and art, we must maintain and nourish our own playful heart towards the subject because we cannot give what we do not possess. Next, our lesson plans should investigate fascinating problems regularly that may or may not have known solutions. Doing so presents mathematics to students as an unending puzzle we are always in the process of solving and finding new parts to dig into. Finally, we must invite students to formulate, ponder, suggest and create problems with us on a regular basis. Giving students ownership of their learning provides them with confidence, agency and fulfillment as mathematicians.
Playfulness in School Mathematics
The posts that follow explore this idea further by examining several key ingredients to successfully playful maths classrooms. To begin, we flesh out the qualities of teachers who create and maintain a healthy environment for students to play maths. Setting the stage for physical, intellectual, psychological and emotional safety is an intentional pursuit. Then, we’ll dive into various “triage” techniques for engaging and/or continuously re-engaging students into the mathematics we teach. Finally, we delve into ideas around planning and sharing lessons that expand this idea beyond our own classrooms and towards mathematics in schools at large.