Serious Play

motivatedbrainRecently I began a new book from ASCD, The Motivated Brain: Improving Student Attention, Engagement, and Perseverance by Gayle Gregory and Martha Kaufeldt (2015). Now that is a title that will get the attention of any educator! I have not gotten very far into the substance of the book but am certainly intrigued by several important points highlighted in their introduction and in the foreword, by Professor of Neuroscience Jaak Panksepp, and am making connections with my own experiences and discussions with other educators.


Educators often complain about the lack of intrinsic motivation in our students, especially as they reach middle and high school. But as we all have experienced when observing our children or other’s children from birth, we are built to learn; and learning often looks like play. Learning never occurs faster than in those first few years of life, when for the most part no one is grading, rewarding or even supervising the learning. What happens to those enthusiastic kindergartners who happily enter classrooms with a joy of learning, an insatiable curiosity and true excitement for the day ahead?
I remember having two recess periods a day during my years in primary grades but my own child sometimes came home from first grade with no recess at all. Recess only came at the end of the day, if they got all their work done. But based on recent research, Panksepp reports that Finland has instituted a policy requiring 15 minutes of free play for every hour of class time in grade school. It’s like giving the brain a “re’boot” every hour.


There has also been much lament over the tightly scheduled days of our children. Dance lessons, music lessons, soccer practice, carefully choreographed play dates and birthday parties, etc. leave no time for children to just be children and play. It seems to me our culture has become so serious, so focused on accomplishment as measured by tests that we have forgotten what the joy of learning looks like. It does not look like children sitting quietly in rows or even at tables, with a teacher in front of the room.


We have been fighting this battle for years. Brain-based learning has been a major discussion in the educational community for the last thirty years, but yet as Gregory and Kaufeldt propose, we are still not implementing what the research tells us:

“Shouldn’t classrooms be designed and orchestrated to maximize opportunities to explore and engage with the concepts and skills most appropriate for success in the 21st century?”

My suspicion is that involves a lot more of what looks like “play” going on in classrooms. As I continue my learning from Gregory and Kaufeldt I will share the connections I make in a series of blogs.


What does learning look like in your school setting? How and when do children have the opportunity to play? 


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