Some of the best learning I enjoy emerges from my study of writers at play.

In 1932, Mildred B. Parten was the first to distinguish one form of play from another, making a contribution to the field of education that has sustained the test of time. My awareness of these classifications often prompts me to consider the relationship between play and the development of writers.

Many similarities appear to exist. Take a peek at the document below. What do you think? Am I off-base here?

While some question whether these phases are truly developmental, it’s interesting to consider the varied approaches that teachers employ in their endeavors to move children from one type of play to another.

As children play, teachers quietly go about the business of establishing norms and routines that help children become increasingly social and cooperative in their play. Children are gently coached to share, they are taught cooperative learning skills, and eventually, they learn how to truly collaborate. All of this works in service to their physical, emotional, social, and intellectual development. However, the lessons are rarely taught out of context, and play is never disrupted in order to accomplish this. In fact, play remains a worthy end unto itself, and even as teachers help children develop the skills necessary to engage in it well, they do so in order to make their play increasingly satisfying and rewarding. I think it was Piaget who first suggested that play is the work of children. It’s how they learn. I can’t help but feel that great teachers recognize this and are deliberate in their efforts to help children get better at it.

I contend that play is also the work of many writers. Much has been written about the traits or craft of writing, best instructional practices, and specific methodologies that serve so many important purposes. Paying serious attention to serious play taught me something more, though: these traditional approaches, while powerful in their own right, often alienate those who need to move, make, and game in order to write well. We’re losing these writers in schools and in our communities. They have important things to say and critical contributions to make.

In this era of standards based instruction and high accountability, educators often grapple with the nature of play and all of its fuzzy connotations. Play is often perceived as unfocused, unproductive, and without clear purpose. There is an assumption that play and standards cannot live peaceably together inside of our schools, and that attending to academic performance and the growth of skills is somehow more essential to learners and learning.
Engaging writers in serious play that propels them forward is very different than sending our children out the door on a summer morning to engage in unsupervised social play with their friends. A tremendous amount of learning occurs through those experiences to be sure, but the kind of play that I’m speaking to empowers writers to meet and exceed learning goals—their own and those that their teachers set for them. This includes the Common Core State Standards. Serious play happens at just the right time for a very specific purpose. It happens in a defined space, it’s governed by clear rules of engagement, and it’s goal-oriented. For our purposes, the goal is the generation and execution of fabulous writing ideas.

Some people are naturally inclined to write. I’ve found that many more of them are when I help them game the process though, and I need to thank Sunni Brown, James Macanufo, and Dave Gray for this discovery. In their book Gamestorming, they do a service to writers everywhere by reminding us that creativity can be taught, and that we can begin our education by observing creative types at work.

This is where their research took them, and their findings have huge implications for teachers of writing: they learned that creative people play in very purposeful ways, applying uncomplicated strategies to generate and tinker with new ideas, test them out, and discover the unexpected. These strategies travel by word of mouth, from one user to another, and as they do, they evolve. The social nature of this kind of play makes for dynamic gaming, then.

The strategies aren’t fixed. They’re responsive to the needs of the user. This forever evolving collection of games opens up a world of opportunity for those seeking creative solutions to the challenges they face in just about any context. As a writing teacher, I’ve noticed that gaming specific phases of the writing process—particularly idea generation, execution, and organization– can engage even the most resistant writers and enable all students to work each phase to its fullest potential.

These five features distinguish games from other forms of play: game space, boundaries, rules of interaction, the use of artifacts, and a purposeful goal. While much can be gained from unstructured play and the experimentation that is a natural byproduct of it, the serious play inspired by structured games like these enable writers to strive toward specific goals—and yes, this includes the achievement of standards– in ways that deepen their creativity.
These games are designed to move writers out of their initial states of uncertainty into a world where a variety of potential solutions are devised, in order to overcome a specific challenge. According to Brown, Macanufo, and Gray, the first act of any game is intended to open up writers’ minds, illuminate possibilities, and generate abundant, diverse ideas without judgment.

Space is the most important tool for game play. Writers will need a place to map out their ideas using sticky notes or index cards and enough space to collaborate with other players. White boards, open wall spaces, and chalk boards meet this need well. In areas where space is tight, provide writers with foam boards and tacks, paper scrolls or chart paper. These miniature game boards can be used in tight quarters, and they pack and travel well when writers are eager to move around, collaborate, or take their work home with them.

Once each writer’s thinking is made transparent, the second act begins: meaning-making. Writers examine the board and work together to sift, sort, classify, and categorize their ideas. They notice connections, seek patterns, and often find themselves surprised and compelled by new and unexpected alternatives. This phase of the work is very physical: it happens on their feet, and it feels more like making than writing.

Closing is the final phase of the game. This is where important choices are made. Writers remember that they can’t pursue every option. They revisit their goals and consider which alternatives are most meaningful, relevant, timely, and possible. What remains is not abandoned, however. Writers use their notebooks and other tools to curate these ideas which sometimes find a place in future works.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing some of my favorite games for writers. Some are adaptations of those found on the Gamestorming cheat sheet. Others are my own, although I’m quickly realizing that when it comes to this kind of work, everything is inspired by something else. So, I hope that what I share inspires you to design your own games for writers. I hope they inspire your students too!


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