Play Time! (Please Don't Cry) by Bob Sprankle

I've been meaning to post about the topic of PLAY for a while now, and was motivated to finally get to it after reading this excellent article called, "The Case for Play" over at the Chronicle of Higher Education. My students and I are currently talking a lot about Play right now ---which we refer to as Sandbox Mode--- so this post is particularly relevant for me now.

Though the term Sandbox or Sandbox Mode has been around for ages, I must pause to give Vicki Davis credit for making the term a building block of my curriculum, as she discussed it years ago with me and how important it was to identify it as an essential step in learning. I've mostly identified the term Sandbox as a place to "try things out with coding or software without actually destroying the world;" a place to try things without committing them to an actual finished project.

I really integrated the term "Sandbox" into my curriculum when one day a student asked me: "Mr. S, how did you get so smart and learn all you know about computers?"

I stopped everything I was doing right away and let the student know two truths:

1. I'm not actually as smart as you think I am.


2. I've learned pretty much everything I know about computers from simply playing around with them.

I don't think the student bought it (at least number 2).

Teachers have long passed out "new tools" to students and said, "Explore with them," before the actual lesson gets underway. It just makes good sense. For instance, introduce students to Base Ten blocks and the first thing that they're going to want to do is build. They're not thinking about the blocks as Mathematical Tools yet; they first see them as FUN! So, whether you want them to or not, they're going to build with them the moment they get them into their hands, so go ahead: let them get it out of their systems. Tell them "You have X-number of minutes to do what you wish with these tools (within normal safety expectations)," and then get down to the "serious" work (note: I still think Base Ten blocks are fun even when used for Math because I think Math is fun).

So, I let students do this as much as possible in the Computer Lab (just as I did when I was a classroom teacher), but I now call it "Sandbox Mode" because I've added some parameters around it.

One of the main things I want for ALL my students is that they have confidence, belief in themselves, and are not afraid to try things. This isn't just about computers (I want them to feel this way about everything), but using computers as an example: I want my students to leave me being able to sit down at ANY computer, running ANY type of Operating System, and immediately be able to figure out things about ANY piece of software. Again, I pause here to give another hat-tip to Vicki Davis for she really helped me understand that I have to make this goal (and all the stages necessary to achieve it) explicit to the students. I can't just do my lessons and hope that they get there, or somehow infer what skills I ultimately hope they leave with.

So, I call it "Sandbox Mode" instead of play.

The rules that govern Sandbox Mode are:

  1. The first rule of Sandbox Mode is you don't talk about Sandbox Mode (just kidding with this one)
  2. Sandbox Mode will only last for 5 minutes
  3. You may not talk during Sandbox Mode
  4. You may not shout out your discoveries during Sandbox Mode
  5. You may not ask questions from anyone during Sandbox Mode

Now, before I give these parameters, I've learned to get the students ready with a little "comedy routine" in order to get them laughing and relaxed (if you'd like to hear it, click here... it'll give you an idea of my "routine"). The reason I do this, is that I've learned that if I don't get students laughing and relaxed before Sandbox Mode, some students get very stressed during the 5 minutes that I ask them to work entirely on their own.... some to the point of tears.

In fact, there have been times when I've put adults in Sandbox Mode, and some of them have gotten stressed... also to the point of tears.

This begs the question: why? Why can't some students (and even some adults) work entirely alone for 5 minutes without becoming distressed? I don't think this just happens with technology... I think it happens across disciplines. If you listen to my audio that I linked above, you'll hear my "theory" about why this happens, but I think it's better told by two students I know.

I met Maya and Priya Ganesan at the TEDxRedmond conference last year, and I think both girls show an understanding in their talks that help us get at a part of the problem.

First, listen to Priya Ganesan's talk on on “Creativity in Schools”:

You'll hear her talk about her experiences in school where "half of the work" has been done for students, as in her example about writing a poem. She questions why schools don't trust students of being "capable" to create the entire poem themselves.

This is a profound question. Does it actually have to do with trust, or are students provided half of the poem to speed things along in order to get through the curriculum? Or is it a matter of control... making sure that all students reach the desired (successful) outcome? No matter what the reason, Priya brings to light that students aren't being allowed to fumble on their own; aren't given the time to create an entire piece independently; are restricted by strong routines set in place.

Are we as teachers ---unwittingly, and with the best intentions--- doing too much of the work for the students?

Look: I know I do it. If I really had the guts, I would extend Sandbox Mode for a longer period than 5 minutes (perhaps most learning should be done in Sandbox Mode). But I am looking at the clock and the calendar and realize that I only have the students for such a small amount of time, so I hasten to show them how to use the software (or whatever I'm teaching) rather than allow them to discover it on their own (which, as stated above, is the way that I myself prefer to learn about software).

In a "factory model" setting (i.e., large classrooms sizes, little time, huge curriculum to cover), it is simply nearly impossible to allow for trueinquiry-based learning.

Does this matter?

I think it does... and perhaps more than ever. We need to facilitate learning environments that allow for students to become confident, independent thinkers who are not afraid to discover on their own. It will be thinkers and risk-takers that are going to solve many of the issues facing the world today... and tomorrow's issues that are yet unrealized.

I can't help but see an overlap with Priya's TEDxRedmond talk and her sister, Maya's: "The Definition of Perfection:"

Looking at her examination of how this idea of "Perfection" can lead to serious health issues, I think about Priya's questioning of why we don't allow students time for independently accomplishing tasks, or even making their own creative decisions. Could this absence of independently solving problems and tasks lead to a lack of confidence that later plays out in such serious issues like eating disorders described by Maya?

If you'd like to hear more from Priya and Maya, head on over to the Seedlings' Podcast from February 10, 2011 when they were guests on the show.

In the meantime, will you help me to answer the following question:

What factors are leading to some of our learners becoming distressed to the point of tears when told to PLAY with their learning? And what are we doing about it?

Thank you for your input in the comment section below.