Play Attention: playfulness and absorption in learning and living.

We must remember how to play.  So our Chaplain reminded us recently.  Total absorption in something fun – in play – is not only a good thing in itself, but play is also necessary for our well-being; play is refreshing and regenerative.

You sometimes hear people talking about ‘work-life balance’.  I have always felt this to be a rather negative & unhelpful polarisation: an unnecessary one.  The reason why I refer to school as “serious fun” is because, at best, our learning lives cater for the whole of our being.  We are not always serious, we are not always at play.  Each activity has the potentiality for the full richness of human emotions.

‘Work-life balance’ implies that the two are mutually exclusive.  Similarly, the saying that you should ‘work to live’ rather than ‘live to work’, makes the same category mistake.  Life, fun, work – surely, they should all be the same thing.  In other words, if you view life and work as part of the same whole thing, and you value play as part of work and life, there is now balance.  You are not creating a tension of opposites, but rather a forward-moving dynamic.  You are absorbed in the enjoyment of living and learning.  Forget work-life balance: live life to the full and aim to enjoy something about everything.

As children, we grow up playing and yet, gradually, the time given over to play slips away; bit by bit, the imaginative play gives way to increasingly formalised and regularised modes of play, for example, through individual and team sport.  Interesting that in many independent schools we talk about our sporting programme as ‘Games’.

I certainly don’t see a contradiction in the phrase ‘serious fun’.  At heart, all learning, all activity, should have a sense of play about it.  Certainly, some occasions and situations demand a sombre formality: Remembrance Sunday is not a moment for play.  But, most settings, even the serious, can benefit from the perspective and relief that comes from moments of playfulness.

Is there a difference between good play and bad play?  If so, what is it about good play that makes it good.  I’d like to suggest that good play is refreshing in some way.  Although it takes energy, it should also be generative.  If you play properly, it is enriching for all involved.  Play properly, I remember saying to a cousin who had stopped trying in a tennis match.  In order to give play true meaning and value, we have to take it seriously.

The Chaplain ruled activities such as computer-gaming as lower or lesser forms of play.  My instant response was to nod inwardly.  Hours of mindless semi-comatose button-pressing does not seem energising or enriching.  But when I see my son on Minecraft creative, I can see that it is a valuable mode of play.  Like most things, there is a law of diminishing returns – the longer you play on the same activity, without variation, the less playful it gets.  At the heart of play, then, is invention, imagination, creativity. And that is why play can, and indeed should, be part of learning.  Play isn’t something that can only happen in our free time; it can happen in more structured time, through our co-curricular activities, of course – this is want we might call formalised play; and it needs to happen in our learning.

Now, let’s be clear.  I’m not saying that the classroom or the lab are the same as the playground or our back gardens.  We all need to adopt a formal persona in the classroom.  We are working in a group, and group behaviour, led by an expert – ie a teacher – needs to follow formal patterns.  But, good teaching and learning allows space for the spirit of creativity and intellectual play.  All academic subjects have room for invention, for the absorption of play.

Over the holidays I read a book by Paul Dolan, a professor at LSE and government wellbeing advisor, called “Happiness By Design”.  Dolan’s central idea is that we are happy if and when we have a good mix of two key ingredients in life: pleasure and purpose.  Pleasure linked to purpose is the optimal source of happiness.  And much of our happiness and joy, or misery and anxiety, depends on what we choose to pay attention to.

“The “science of happiness” […]  is full of bizarre and contradictory findings. Parents report that parenting makes life much more meaningful, yet seem to experience no more pleasure than non-parents; more money doesn’t lead [automatically] to more happiness […]. One problem, he [Dolan] argues, is that psychologists simply try to find out which “inputs” – income, work, marital status, age, religiosity and so on – are correlated with the “output” of happiness. But in fact happiness also depends on how we allocate attention to those things. Imagine two biscuit factories, one run well, the other incompetently: they might have identical inputs (sugar, flour, labour, electricity) yet produce very different quantities of biscuits, depending on their production processes. The same goes for manufacturing happiness. Attention, Dolan writes, “acts as a production process that converts stimuli into happiness”. Attention is a scarce resource: give it to one thing, and by definition you can’t give it to something else. If you’re not as happy as you could be, “you must be misallocating your attention“.

“Even if it isn’t easy, Dolan makes a persuasive case that happiness might really be simple. His book is a powerful reminder not to get caught up in overthinking things, but to focus instead on maximising what actually delivers joy. [Dolan’s conclusion is that we should] “Listen more to your real feelings of happiness than to your reflections on how happy you think you are or ought to be.” Oliver Burkemann, Guardian.

This, to me at least, suggests that part of the key to deep happiness is in applying our attention actively and positive.  The Buddhists would call this ‘right mindfulness’, which is part of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path.  Whatever our activity, whether ‘work’ or ‘play’, it is full commitment and absorption that gives the activity real value.  It is the things to which we choose to give our full attention, are the things that will give us the truest rewards of happiness and purpose.  By this reckoning, we should pay attention to the things that give us purpose and pleasure; we should focus our attention on the pleasurable aspects inherent in all the tasks we are obliged to do.  And we must learn playfully and play seriously.  And, whatever we are doing, we should pay attention.

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