The Necessity of Play

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Semester system schools are already in full swing and quarter system schools are just about to start up. Fall 2022 is here, a new school year—one that brings us students who have been through the pandemic of the last two and a half years. Many haven’t been on campus in some time, haven’t been in classes with other students and teachers. Others have been fairly isolated, or isolated on phones, which is a special kind of isolation.

For the last month I have listened to stories—as I’m sure you have—about mental health issues among young people today, and I’ve listened especially to those about college students and the difficulties they are reporting. Just yesterday I heard a first-year college student being interviewed: when asked what she had lost during the last two years, she answered, simply, “myself.” I know you can fill in similar examples from your own experience, maybe even from your own family.

This has always been my favorite time of year: the new school year, the new class of students, the excitement of beginning college study, the excitement of meeting, and teaching, first-year students. My favorite. Time. Of. Year. But the last two and a half years have chastened and sobered me, as I’ve spoken with so many college-bound students who are feeling distress and even fear.

In such a time, my steadfast belief is that teachers of writing/reading/speaking have a special opportunity and a special obligation. We may be teaching the smallest class our students will take. We almost certainly will be meeting students one-on-one more than other faculty, either in office hour sessions or in writing center sessions. We will absolutely be sharing writing with students, reading and responding to what they have to say and, we hope, establishing a two-way connection with them. 

This year, more than ever, we need to make the most of these opportunities. But I think we need to do something more: we need to introduce students to the ludic nature of rhetoric and remind them of the crucial importance of play and playfulness to their learning and to their lives.  In this endeavor, I am guided and inspired by Lynda Barry, whose One! Hundred! Demons! I have taught for eons and whose comics and especially books on creativity (Picture This, What It Is) are always on my desk, along with her brilliant syllabus. 

Barry is convinced that there is an artist in each of us and that playing—playing!—is the best way to let that artist emerge. And to release anxieties of all kinds and to become creators rather than recorders or responders only. (If you’ve ever had a chance to participate in one of Barry’s workshops, you’ll have seen the magic happen: if you haven’t, take some time to read about them or find out if she will be giving workshops anywhere near you in the coming months.)

Barry says that when she is working with graduate students, almost always uptight and anxious and focused laser-like on one objective—she pairs them with 3 and 4 year olds: she says sixty to ninety minutes playing with these little ones loosens everything up, shifts patterns of thought, and leads to some brilliant problem solving. And when she says playing, she means playing:  down on the floor, making things together, defining things together, even just hanging out.

While I don’t have access to a bunch of preschoolers (wish I did!), I can still introduce play into our classroom: activities where I ask students to listen hard for three minutes and then describe what they heard, or hand them objects they must describe and name without opening their eyes–you can probably think of more. And we can be playful with writing: trying for limericks or witty haikus; writing a very long sentence about the process of writing a very long sentence; trying for a sentence with the most double negatives, or the most metaphors or similes. Anything to be playful and to loosen up, to relax, and then to create.

I would like to make all our writing projects more fun, with more potential for play—even a research-based argument; even a research project itself. I will write more about these possibilities soon. In the meantime, I am thinking of all writing teachers and students everywhere, and hoping that, together, we can have a healthy—and a healing—year.

 Image used under a standard Adobe Stock license

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About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.