Playful Intelligence… for teachers.
Because playing is fun.
And school should be.
I first met Anthony T. DeBenedet at the 2018 US Play Coalition Conference in Clemson, SC. He was tasked with the role of keynote- slotted to speak just after the lunch hour. With an audience whose stomachs were full of turkey sandwiches, tomato soup, and one (or in my case, three) cookies, Dr. DeBenedet’s task was to inform and entertain. A tall order for a crowd in a food coma.
There were no fireworks.
There was no fanfare.
What did transpire was 20 minutes of endearing stories- a description of Dr. DeBenedet’s path to discovering the qualities of what would come to be called Playful Intelligence.
I felt myself leaning in.
Then leaning back.
Then leaning in again. Elbow on the table- against my Southern Belle upbringing- I was really listening.
I’ve attended many keynote addresses and listened to the hype of many fads, or what critics would call pop-psychology. As a long time educator, I am highly sensitive to these types of talks.
Refreshingly, this event was not what I feared.
Rather, Dr. DeBenedet spoke to the value of relationships- how he was able to study adult playfulness through genuine conversations with his patients. In his theory, DeBenedet extends the interpersonal and intrapersonal aspects of Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences– the knowledge of how playfulness can influence both our inner and outer selves. Of the more than 40 behavioral qualities linked to adult playfulness, DeBenedet found five that may best influence our adult lives.
You might expect imagination to be associated here with artistic or musical expression. DeBenedet did too, but that’s not where he found it popping up. In his work, the quality of imagination in healthy adults manifested in the ability to psychologically reframe difficult situations. Not escaping our struggles, but rather viewing them differently- using imagination to problem-solve and cope. Imagination, when practiced through deep play and daydreaming, increases our capacity for empathy.
Imagination is also a quality that helps us move from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. For example, take a moment to Google “the Einstellung Effect.” This study, which focused on identifying solution bias, showed participants solving a problem based on previous experience even when a better solution exists. Their mindsets were fixed based on the experiences they had been provided.
If we rely too much on our past experiences to solve a problem, we allow those neural connections to strengthen, thus limiting our ability to think creatively. We use our thought-defaults and get stuck. When we exercise our imaginations, we reframe problems, open our minds and look at the world a new way.
How many times as a teacher, do we do it the way it’s always been done because it worked one time in the past? Every class I’ve taught has been different and has required different things from us as educators. Teachers with a strong imagination are able to recognize opportunities to follow paths to new outcomes instead of relying on the same ol’ same ol’.
Playful sociability includes the ability to reject a THEM vs. US mentality. Those with the quality of playful sociability see only WE. Those who embody this trait have a strong sense of egalitarianism, built by the approach to social situations with humility and powerlessness. These people have a way of making everyone around them feel valued. They interact with authenticity, seeing others as humans rather than labels. Teachers who personify playful sociability reject stereotypes, loving their students first and teaching them second.
To truly educate, those with the trait of playful sociability, block labels and listen to student stories.
We must hear them.
We must listen.
These nuggets of authenticity are clues to their needs.
- Do they need remediation?
- Do they need challenge?
- Do they need the connection of friendship?
- Do they crave leadership roles?
In the medical field, listening is key to diagnosis. In the field of education, listening is key to meeting the needs of our students. In the end, we are all working on the diagnosis of how to be a better human.
In our path to diagnosis, we must beware of the trap of anchoring bias. When we place too much value on initial information (think- data, test scores, grades, last year’s teacher, first impressions), our brain starts anchoring. Once this occurs, it’s hard to adjust our thinking.
Teachers, don’t try to act like y’all don’t know about this… Mrs. Smith the fourth grade teacher runs down the hall at the beginning of every year to tell all the fifth grade teachers about the new batch of “precious kiddos” coming up. Sadly, she never has precious words to say because she just wants to rant about the ones she didn’t like.
Y’all… Shut that down. Ain’t nothing playful about a gossiping teacher.
Because we recognize humor as laughter, it is the easiest characteristic of the playful mindset to spot. Insert, neuroscience. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
The area of the brain that controls laughter is the sub-cortex- the same area that controls breathing and muscle reflexes. The areas of the brain that light up when we experience joy are known as the ventral tegmental area. So, basically we’re looking at the bottom and the back. When we experience joy or laughter, the “pleasure chemical” dopamine pushes from those areas toward the front of the brain (the part responsible for judgment, creativity, and problem solving). Here’s the key. Are you ready? Joy, pleasure, creativity, and critical thinking are connected.
That’s not all.
Our brain’s connective, dendrite-firing awesomeness pairs an emotion with each learning experience. Educators have a choice: we have students potentially shut down from frustration, or we build strong connections by associating learning with positive emotions.
DeBenedet calls this effect resiliency- one of the main benefits of humor.
Another benefit of humor is human connection. The right kind of humor “says to others that it’s safe to explore, play, and nurture a relationship together.” When we use affiliative humor (the kind that puts others at ease, amuses, and improves relationships), we allow ourselves to drop personal walls and engage openly in conversations.
We already know that education is first about relationships, but now you can add humor to that list of essential elements in a successful classroom community.
Spontaneity is the trait exhibited when we do unplanned things, outside of routine. The art of teaching uses spontaneity when we teach in the moment, when we use student questions to follow curiosities to their aha moments. Students trust us to let them explore, and spontaneity allows exploration to take the lead in classrooms.
There’s a science to spontaneity as well; it manifests itself in our day-to-day lives as psychological flexibility- the mental response to the unplanned and unpredictable.
You know those folks who get all bent out of sorts when they get a new student? When they are given a new paperwork task? When their carefully planned lesson goes off the rails? Those folks might need a little practice in rolling with it- in spontaneity.
I’d like to say I’m the kind of teacher who eases through disruptions, but in reality I feel a little scattered. It’s not that I don’t ease through- it’s that I can’t remember where I was before the phone rang, the visitor came, or where my dog-gone clipboard went. It’s like that old saying about lemons and lemonade, if we have the mindset of psychological flexibility- we don’t get rattled. Our students won’t worry what will set us off. We won’t take away recess because we’ve HAD IT! Or throw silent lunch around like glitter. We breathe. We smile. We reassess, and we roll through.
How do we encourage spontaneity in our students? We can start by giving them opportunities to problem solve. Did someone in the back say PBL? (That’s project-based learning for those who might not know) Yeah, I heard you. Yes. Any kind of learning situation that’s messy and unpredictable (yes, like real life) will do it. Think about how often we ask students to imagine alternate solutions or reframe problems. In personality science, this is called “openness to experience.”
If we’re open, we’ll be spontaneous.
If we’re spontaneous, we have flexibility.
If we’re flexible, we give ourselves permission to create, have bold ideas, and craft new solutions.
You might read this section title and think wonder is the same as curiosity here. While these two can be interchangeable as synonyms, the mindset for wonder here is different.
Curiosity spurs action, but the kind of wonder Dr. DeBenedet is referring to with wonder is the kind that stops you in your tracks. It’s awe. It’s that moment when time freezes and you appreciate the raw emotion in a moment.
Kids experience wonder all the time. They’ll pause to watch a woolly worm make its way up a tree. They’ll turn their heads to the side, mouth falling open as they experience the push and pull of magnetic forces.
The wonder can be seen on their faces.
We know it because their eyes light up.
There may be a grin.
There may be scrunched up eyebrows.
But there’s always a pause.
The pause is when the emotional experience occurs- it’s our brain allowing time to regroup and reflect. Wonder, on a neuropsychological level, is an emotion. I know what you’re thinking here- “Yes! This is great. I’m going to hook all my learners though wonder-ful experiences.” And I do want you to do just that, but if you start making lists of more hooks for tomorrow’s plans, you’ll be going about this wonder bit all wrong. Wonder is not the what of the experience- it’s the how.
The playful quality of wonder is more about focusing on how we perceive our environment than in what we’re seeing. If we keep going bigger and better, allowing our students to experience wonder through the grand and majestic, we’ll cause wonder inflation. Students may begin to depend on the “extra,” and their wonder threshold gets higher and higher.
So what do we do? Easy. We model for our students how we find wonder in the small things. Each experience, each lesson has an opportunity for wonder. Find it, whisper it to them. Your eyes are wide, your voice is low. They’re leaning in… do you see it? Wonder is contagious.
My favorite part
Perhaps my favorite part of DeBenedet’s book is the final chapter. There’s a story he tells that gave me pause. It’s of his encounter and lesson learned from a home visit to Eleanor Schapffer. Seems to me that many educators would benefit from a visit with Eleanor. The lesson you ask? Well, it’s summed up in this [edited] line from DeBenedet’s mentor:
“In the course of your training, you will learn every detail of what we do for [students]. Never forget the power of just being there with them.”
Isn’t that true for us all?
Dr. Julie Jones is the Director for Student Teaching in Converse College’s School of Education and Graduate Studies. She maintains an active research agenda with interests including instructional technology and validated instructional approaches, strategies, and assessments- always with a mix of creativity and play.