Story by David Irwin

Play. It’s a simple word that we learn at an early age, and it embodies wide-ranging activities that help shape our essential nature through adulthood. Who hasn’t heard the shout of, “Will you play with me?” or “Let’s play hide-and-go-seek!”

We engage in a multitude of sports — “Play ball!” The billion-dollar game industry capitalizes on our penchant for play, and we play in orchestras and playact on stage and screen. The list is endless. 

It’s easier to illustrate play than define it, but common themes in the literature point to play as a pathway for children to have fun, learn and to develop social skills. However, adults recreate and learn through play, too, and count on playful activities as a stress reducer or an escape from the unpredictability of life. 

The role of play in our lives is multifaceted and still emerging, but some Geneseo faculty members and alumni are involved in the serious use and application of play. Their work provides insight into how it fits into the world of education, business and individual well-being.

“Play gives us control and joy over where we go and what we do,” said Annmarie Urso, associate professor in Geneseo’s Ella Cline Shear School of Education. “It gives us agency; something we don’t often feel when we are not doing something we love.”

How we feel about ourselves is linked to the neurobiochemistry in our brains, said Urso. When we’re involved in a playful activity that makes us feel good, it releases chemicals, such as serotonin, that help counteract stress hormones.

Illustration of kids playing in a tree, from kid to adulthood

Illustration by Jane Newland

Play is having an unmistakable impact on teaching. Educators are increasingly applying play as an effective classroom management strategy for both children and adults. Students in Geneseo’s childhood education courses are learning how the blending of unstructured play time with traditional curriculums fosters learning better than adhering to a tightly scripted curriculum.

Sharon Peck, associate professor in the School of Education, is a professional puppeteer who teaches puppetry and game design in her master’s level language arts courses for certified teachers.

“We tend to separate work and play — recess and work — but it’s all interconnected,” said Peck. “We need to change our concept and recognize how important play is and how it is so central to every developmental stage. It is not a waste of time.”

Peck points to the strong tradition of puppetry in all world cultures and emphasizes that the intrinsic nature of using puppets as symbols is an excellent means of acting on and understanding one’s world.

“If I want you to learn something, I want you to grapple with it and understand it,” said Peck. “I want you to internalize it and make it your own. All of the elements of puppetry — touch, sound, music, imagery — do that. It brings it all together.”

Peck spent many years teaching elementary school and says she often found students wanting to know if something was right or wrong, urging her to correct them. 

“Through puppetry, I can put them in a space where they have to determine if it’s right or wrong and why,” said Peck. “I want them to be more willing to jump into that learning space, to be more playful rather than rigid.”

Peck’s use of puppetry in education takes many forms, including tabletop puppetry. Instead of creating an elaborate stage with multiple pieces, students may create simple two-dimensional puppets that hook over a book on a rod, such as a straw. Peck and a former student created a method called the reading response ladder, which encourages students to retell the book’s story with puppets.

“They retell the book, making changes such as ending it the way they want,” said Peck. “They are re-authoring it, which gives them power over the book and tells me they understand the story. We are making learning real for students.”

Such role-playing, says Peck, makes learning memorable and requires connecting it to something fun and different.

“It must have a high emotional connection,” she says. “You should feel success or victory, and that’s what happens with puppetry and games.”

The late Fred Rogers of “Mister Rogers Neighborhood” fame used puppetry extensively in delivering his messages to millions of children on his television program. Peck says he clearly understood the power of play in reaching kids.

“He called play ‘the work of childhood,’” said Peck. “He was brilliant.”

An increasing body of research is emerging validating the effectiveness of play in learning, especially for young children. Media studies, for example, have attested to the learning benefits that such well-known characters as the Muppets impart through the “Sesame Street” television program and other venues. 

Urso says she didn’t come to understand the value of play in education until she joined the Geneseo faculty but is now a staunch defender of its value.

“There is no duress academically in play,” says Urso. “We can take away that element of being compared to everyone else in the classroom.” 

The bottom line, says Urso, is the ability to work things out through play, allowing children to develop social skills, language skills and characteristics of self-confidence, resilience and persistence.

Urso applies the principles of play in a summer learning program she has coordinated since 2012 for elementary school students in rural areas near Geneseo called Soaring Stars. She employs the Reggio Emilia educational philosophy during the program, which encourages children to develop individual interests and explore them using art, music, science, drama, technology, building projects and physical activities.

“Play is a great equalizer for Soaring Stars,” says Urso. “When they have to write about their projects or measure something, there is no duress. It’s their world, their realm. They are in control.”

Urso says that with Reggio Emilia, the play environment and the student are as important as the teacher and says she has continued to see signs of progress from students involved in the program over the years.

The best teachers, says Urso, are those with well-honed interaction skills and the ability to connect with children at their level — the “soft skills” not typically measured in teacher assessment.

“I would much rather have a student in a college course who is competent and connects with kids versus someone who is extremely competent with a beautiful lesson plan but does not connect with children,” says Urso.

The Reggio Emilia philosophy of teaching also has caught on at The Strong, a world-class national museum of play in Rochester, N.Y., devoted to the history and exploration of play. Geneseo alumna Debbie Lyness McCoy ’82/M ’89 is assistant vice president for education at the museum, which operates the Woodbury School, an on-site school for ages 3-6. 

McCoy is pleased that newly approved New York State Education Department’s Next Generation Learning Standards emphasize play multiple times as a critical learning strategy for the early childhood classroom.

“Play, by nature, is compelling and the more playful the experience is for children, the more engaging it is,” said McCoy. “That’s important for classroom management and for keeping children on task.” 

McCoy emphasized the important role of imaginative and pretend play in opening doors for children to explore and better understand the world.

“Getting outside of yourself a little and imagining different worlds provides an emotional and social component where you can try out things and be powerful in ways that wouldn’t happen in real life,” said McCoy. “I think it’s critical for a happy and full life to incorporate play.”

McCoy regards play as something that extends through adulthood. The Strong welcomes people of all ages to experience a wide-ranging display of interactive and static exhibits, including the well-known National Toy Hall of Fame, a collection of toys that have inspired creative play over the years, such as the Slinky and Etch A Sketch.

“I frequently see a great amount of nostalgia surface when people are around these artifacts of play, which prompts multigenerational conversations,” said McCoy. “Parents and grandparents often will reminisce about a game or doll they played with when they were younger.” 

Illustration of a small boy throwing leaves and they go into the computer of an adult male, who is being creative in his career

Illustration by Jane Newland

Also cognizant of the value of play is Geneseo alumnus Jamie Bosket ’05, president and CEO of the Virginia Historical Society, which operates the Virginia Museum of History and Culture. He says play is a critical part of a good museum experience.

“Play as entertainment and how that intersects with education is a regular part of our programming across the board,” said Bosket, who earned a master’s degree in museum studies from George Washington University in 2008. “We use play very heavily with our youth and student programming and to a certain degree with our adult programming. We must always consider what kind of museum content will engage different people with different perspectives.”

Bosket says for young student visitors, his staff might have them dress in a replica of clothing to learn about a period of history or have the students play with toy reproductions so they can see the contrast between what they play with now and what they would have used 100 years ago. He says the one play activity that’s hard to beat in a museum is a good scavenger hunt. They are primarily designed for youth guests but the museum also has created them for adults.

“Having a 250,000-square-foot museum encourages people to explore and make sure they don’t miss storylines,” said Bosket. “The hunts are structured around finding particular locations or objects in the museum.” 

The broader view of play also has important applications for adult life.

McCoy says just as the arranging of classroom desks to encourage movement among students can stimulate thinking, things like popular stand-up desks and workplace game rooms do the same thing for adults.

“These techniques promote creative thinking and playful inquiry to brainstorm with coworkers, and such playful experiences in school can help build those essential skills,” said McCoy.

For students at Geneseo, play is incorporated into numerous curricular and co-curricular programs. In geological sciences, for example, Professor Scott Giorgis and his colleagues use an augmented reality sandbox in labs to teach students how to read topographic maps.

While students “play” in the 40” x 30” sandbox creating mini-mountains and valleys, a nearby unit containing a sensor tracks and measures their activity, calculates a topographic map and immediately projects the map back onto the sand. When they move the sand and change the landscape, the topographic map automatically updates.

“Instead of telling the students the difference between a valley and a mountain, this technology allows them to discover that for themselves by playing in the sand,” said Girogis. “It really builds enthusiasm for the topic, and it’s well-demonstrated that if people are engaged and enjoy what they are doing, they are much more likely to pay attention and remember.”

Giorgis and colleagues from other institutions are conducting research on the effectiveness of using the augmented reality sandbox for topographic map teaching.

“The jury is still out,” said Giorgis. “So far, the research is showing effectiveness no better than traditional methods, but we’re wondering if students must be immersed in such technology for a longer period of time, instead of just a few labs, to get more valid results. In my usage as a teaching tool, I have found it generating great interest in the topic.”

Geology faculty also use a wave tank lab, where students construct shoreline communities in a large sandbox using small buildings. A mechanism generates waves and students observe erosion as the waves lap onto the shoreline and test their construction skills. 

Outside the classroom, Geneseo offers a wide variety of options in varsity and intramural sports and other organizations and activities to satisfy most any interest.

In whatever form it takes, is play a panacea for well-anchored childhood development, quality education, creative thinking, effective management skills and good physical and mental health?

Without question, an increasing number of people are discovering the benefits of playful activities for all ages as a means of bettering their lives and those around them.

“Sleep restores our physical body, and play restores our emotional well-being — it really does,” says Urso. “In whatever form it engages us, play is required to be whole, functional human beings.”