The Game of Life

My previous post described how Sudbury schooling releases the creativity that forms an essential part of human nature. By essential, I mean to say all people are fundamentally creative, despite the various reasons it can appear otherwise.

Actually, the freedom of Sudbury schools uncovers a range of intrinsically human qualities. There’s a saying that in order to know who a person really is, just examine what they do when they can do what they want. Occasionally I imagine my job as a staff member as being roughly similar to an anthropologist’s work: after all, I too am regularly immersed in a curious, exotic culture—in this case, that of young people.

Another basic human quality abundantly evident at Sudbury schools (and closely related to creativity) is the drive to play. Play is so pervasive on our campuses, in fact, that a common first impression of visitors is that our students enjoy perpetual recess. Whether their games are open-ended or rule-bound, involve running around or sitting at tables, are old-fashioned or electronic, the only thing Sudbury students do as much as (or more than) they play is talk. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to describe the Sudbury curriculum as consisting of play, conversation, and hands-on democracy.

There is little Sudbury students do that isn’t playful. So if play is what people do when they’re choosing their own activities, it can be curiously difficult at our schools to distinguish between play and…not-play. Work? Chores? Obligations? Whatever we choose to call the things we’d rather not do, life itself becomes a game when we’re pursuing our passions.

And here’s where things really get interesting. While the connotations of play include relaxation, goofing around, etc., games are serious business. I recently listened to a Buddhist Geeks podcast in which Jane McGonigal defined games as unnecessary obstacles we bring on ourselves because we want to be engaged. In fact, the better you get at a game, the harder you make it for yourself. When people are engaged, when they are overcoming obstacles, they are demonstrably happier: they’re building relationships, finding meaning and accomplishment.

There are plenty of people more adept than I at detailing the value of play and gaming. (I especially like Peter Gray’s Psychology Today blog, “Freedom to Learn“), and it’s a huge subject to take on in a single blog post (or even a series of posts). However, given  prevalent attitudes toward games and play in our culture—with recess becoming a thing of the past and electronic games widely distrusted—they need all the supporting voices they can get.

Games are so much more than recreation: they are nothing less than the place where curiosity and work come together. As I said earlier, play is absolutely fundamental to who we are as human beings. Games, then, are indispensable to figuring out who we are and how to make our way in the world. Just as Sudbury schools create scaled-down models of the world where students practice the business of living, games provide an arena (a gaming term!) for students to experiment with the rules, objectives, and players in the game of life.

Far from being isolating or passive, games are key to growth and fulfillment. Today’s games are much more social than you might realize, and many feature surprisingly rich story lines. As a writing teacher, I’ve seen the powerful boost gaming can give to young storytellers. Plus, so many games these days are stunningly complex, which is certainly in keeping with McGonigal’s point about self-imposed challenges. I’m also reminded of an article in which the writer leads with an algebraic formula his son  discovered and uses every day (without realizing it’s algebra) to chart out his priorities in an online game.

Of course we all need downtime, and of course it’s possible to use games to zone out or escape: but that’s true of nearly everything, including reading. Just because someone is pursuing an allegedly educational activity does not mean their brain is engaged. In my fifteen years with Sudbury schools, I’ve observed that the more people are allowed to choose their activities, the more they will find activities that push them to become more capable.

Young people who are allowed to play freely, to choose their own games and spend as much time at them as they like, are building both neural pathways and  social connections. They’re indulging their imaginations even as they’re becoming fluent in the latest technologies. They’re more self-aware and better equipped to confront the world.

In gaming terms, I’d call that an epic win.

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