Today we’re joined by Susan Harris MacKay and Matt Karlson, the people behind the Center for Playful Inquiry. Susan is a former teacher and pedagogical director at Opal School and Portland Children’s Museum. Her recent book, Story Workshop: New Possibilities for Young Writers showcases the relationship between play, art, and writing. Matt is a former teacher, professional development facilitator, and Director of Opal School’s Center for Learning.
Together they formed the Center for Playful Inquiry, which prioritizes play, the arts, and meaning-making to inspire justice, democracy, and beauty. They work with schools, educators, and community members to build these systems. In this podcast, we discuss why imaginative play is deeply connected to learning, and why we must be skeptical of educational products & strategies aimed at controlling the narrative of learning.
Susan Harris MacKay is a former teacher and pedagogical director at Opal School and Portland Children's Museum. She is the author of Story Workshop: New Possibilities for Young Writers
Matt Karlson is a former teacher, professional development facilitator, and Director of Opal School's Center for Learning.
0:00:10.7 Chris McNutt: Hello and welcome to episode 124 of our podcast. My name is Chris McNutt and I'm part of the Progressive Education Nonprofit Human Restoration Project. Before we get started, I wanted to let you know that this is brought to you by our supporters, three of whom are Leslie Lindsey, Michelle Edwards, and Joshua Kazemi. Thank you for your ongoing support, you can learn more about the Human Restoration Project on our website, humanrestorationproject.org, or find us on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. Today, we're joined by Susan Harris MacKay and Matt Karlsen, the people behind the Center for Playful Inquiry. Susan is a former teacher and pedagogical director at Opal School and Portland Children's Museum. Her recent book, Story Workshop, New Possibilities for Young Writers, showcases the relationship between play, art, and writing. Matt is a former teacher, professional development facilitator, and director of Opal School's Center for Learning. Together, they form the Central for Playful Inquiry, which prioritizes play, the arts, and meaning-making to inspire justice, democracy, and beauty. They work with schools, educators, and community members to build these systems. Thank you all for joining me today.
0:01:16.3 Matt Karlsen: Thanks for having us.
0:01:17.6 Susan Harris MacKay: Thanks very much.
0:01:18.3 CM: Yeah, I was just talking like kind of off-air, if you will, checking out your TED talks and your blog and all that kind of awesome stuff, which I'll link in the show notes. And I figure it makes sense really to just define our terms to start things off and talk about what it is that we mean when we talk about play. What literally is the play in the Center for Playful Inquiry?
0:01:44.6 SM: I think about play as a strategy for learning. I think about play in the sense of sort of that evolutionary sense that human beings have more play behaviors than other species, most of which have play behaviors, but also have way more instinctive behaviors as the species with the fewest instinctive behaviors who have the most play behaviors. And that gives us the opportunity to be responsive to our environment and to tinker with things and to ask good questions and to construct and reconstruct and deconstruct things that we don't understand. It's not so much in my mind an activity, something that we do for fun, even though it is obviously still that, but really a thinking strategy.
0:02:35.8 CM: It seems like it's connected to fundamentally how we live our lives through any form of emotion. It's the things that we not only obsess over, it's just who we are as a person is very much how we navigate through life is by playing and messing with things and reimagining things and doing stuff that we find cool. I know in your TED Talk, Susan, you talk about how even though we wouldn't necessarily design for sadness, sadness and being upset is a part of the human experience. And it's part of play, which is self-evident if you've ever been around any young children, you know that they'll get around and be sad during play, but it's also part of adult play as well. To define a little more about play and emotion, is there a difference in play when it comes to working with young children versus older children versus adults? Or is it kind of the same concept throughout?
0:03:28.8 SM: Because children and adults really see the world differently, right? Like they have a very different kind of consciousness. Alison Gopnik writes about a child's lantern consciousness. They don't see all the boundaries and dividing lines between things that adults have gotten really good at spotlighting, right? So we can turn our attention to something really specific. And one's not better or worse. You know, in the best case scenario, the best kinds of learning environments, we honor both. Play as an attitude of kind of confidence in meeting up with things that we don't understand and valuing things that we don't yet have the answer to and asking questions and being open and being able to consider multiple perspectives and play the game of, well, what else could it be? What else could be going on here? It's pretty universal, right? It's whether you're three or 43 or whatever. So there's something that is best case scenario worth preserving there. But of course, what we're playing with and the kind of stakes to whether we play or don't play change over time.
0:04:52.0 MK: Everything that you're asking about already is like, well, we could spend six days just talking about that, which is great and fun and playful. There was something in the way that you framed your question, which was talking about the emotions of play. And I think that there is something about play and playfulness that embraces the full range of emotions that welcomes all of that into the space. And I think in schools, you know, when we think about barriers or approaches to play or obstacles there, we just haven't been very good in schools about welcoming all of that in. And so I think that that can be a little scary for adults. Adults, I think, have more fear associated with play than young people do.
0:05:45.9 CM: It reminds me of, so recently we've been doing a lot of research into video game design, not gamification, which I think in a second here, I wanna ask of like, what isn't play? 'Cause there's like some like ways that we could twist this to make it into this concept. But one thing that's fascinating about video game design is designers will look at emotion as a map where in theory you want folks to move from sadness to happiness to joy to relaxation. You want them to be constantly moving between and pinging between all these subtle, small scale emotions. If you program a learning environment so that people are, for example, always relaxed or always happy. That is incredibly boring. And I think that a lot of times when we think about classroom environments, the goal sadly is just to make them very one note. Like this is a calm space for someone who's 10 or 30, you know, whoever, how old they might be after a while, after a while, like it's kind of dull. Right? So what is the relationship between then building spaces that foster play and building spaces that foster emotions? Is that the same thing?
0:07:00.7 SM: Well, I'm not sure that you could design a space that doesn't foster emotion, right? Because whatever like we have, that's something that we don't ever walk away from. We can't leave at the door. We try to design spaces that try to do that, that try to encourage children, especially to leave their students, learners of any kind, to leave their emotions at the door so we can just focus on their heads. You know, it's cleaner that way. It's less messy if people aren't in conflict or arguing with you about what's the right answer to something is or that they have a different perspective or a different experience or, you know, like we can kind of clean that out and just focus on the, you know, which is sort of the intent, I think, of a lot of the book banning and curriculum decisions that are being legislated in certain places in the United States right now. Try to really buckle down and control that and imagine that emotion just doesn't ever come in. But of course, that's absurd, like completely. And there's a neuroscience theory that articulates the importance of emotion to learning. We are in our most optimal state for learning when we have really high cognitive challenge and low emotional risk, but not a lack of emotion, right?
0:08:28.0 SM: If there's a lack of emotion, then we just call that boredom and that's a terrible place to try and learn from. And we learn other things about ourselves and about what learning is and, you know, if we are bored in school. And then there's just the idea that learning to care about something implies that you have discovered that you have emotion about it, right? That you found out that you don't like the way something is and you want it to be different. You care. It is a question of engagement and learning just isn't very useful without all that.
0:09:05.2 MK: I think that that question of engagement, of agency, of participation is part of what I was thinking about when you framed that question that way. When you describe it as a video game designer or a teacher for that matter, if they're trying to create something that manipulates to a single note emotion, that was the image that I had when you asked that question, that doesn't give the person who's participating in that much space to participate. They're just being manipulated. They're just being soothed and dumbed into a space. They're being manipulated. And so there's not that kind of agency and participation. I would say that that's very unplayful. They might be playing a game, but I do think that that's part of the answer to your question of when is it not play? When you're not present, it's not play.
0:10:07.1 CM: One thing I wanted to make clear from the onset, because I think this is a misnomer and I see it across a lot of your work as well as you're talking about play, that when folks hear play and they hear school, the first thing that they think of is gamification, badges, attaching traditional content to what would be seen in a video game or board game setting. But that's not really what you're getting at across all of your work. Your work is a lot more transformational and systems based. Can we briefly describe that and then we'll get into some massive implications for this work?
0:10:42.0 SM: Briefly.
0:10:48.0 SM: Let's see. I think the first situation that you describe retains the assumption that adults, society, the culture has a body of predetermined information that children need to receive or retains the assumption that the world is known and that school is a place where you're to receive that information. You're supposed to take on that knowledge of the way the world is. I'm not sure that that is so necessary anymore or even possible. I mean, there's all kinds of data about the way information is accumulating in the world right now and that you can't keep up with it. And I think that the biggest problem we get into is not being able to imagine something different. If you're not sitting in school to receive and accumulate this knowledge and this information, then why are you there? And so I think what we're talking about is changing the relationship between adults and children by taking very seriously the relationship between adulthood and childhood and recognizing how the imagination of adulthood really gates the experiences of childhood and the long-term implications. We see those outcomes all around. And so what else could it be? What kind of relationship?
0:12:20.1 SM: What kind of attention to interdependencies? What kind of ecosystem can you build inside a classroom? Which is such a great space, right? I mean, where else in the world do you get 30 people to come together every day who don't know each other otherwise, who may not have met each other otherwise, and who get to spend six hours together for a long period of time and also get to go home and have a break from each other at the end of the day, right? And come back together and negotiate. Learn how to be with people that you might not have chosen to be with, that you can't understand or wouldn't understand otherwise. And practice. So what are we trying to practice? It really gets to all those questions about what's school for? What's the healthiest way to develop a stronger citizenry, right? A more productive and sustainable democracy? I think these are environments that are embracing the fact that the world as we know it is kind of broken. And so how do we practice not knowing in school, building a different kind of relationship with our neighbors, with our fellow citizens, than we can imagine right now? The classroom is just such a great potential laboratory for that kind of expression. We don't know what kind of world we could make if we focus there.
0:13:46.0 CM: What's interesting about talking about this topic, I don't know if this comes up in when you're working with schools, I'm sure it does. Is that play is the most complex, simple idea. Like it's something that we all understand and we know what it is. Everyone does this. It's constant, right? It's part of our being. But yet so much of this feels over-engineered to fit into traditional schooling. It's like describing to an alien species what it means to play a game. It's a thing that we do. Everybody does it. It's awkward to describe. What I hear from you is I hear about the dichotomy between something being tapped on versus something being transformational. We're not just adding play onto the existing curriculum of school. We are transforming the curriculum of school to be more focused or in and of itself play. And you're all work at the Center for Playful Inquiry, you work with adults, schools, community members, etcetera, that transition into more of a play-based model. Does that mean that we're giving up old things? Like where does that start? What does that look like to start to embrace playful inquiry?
0:14:55.7 MK: There's a lot of work around, as I think Susan was just suggesting, and as I know your work really focuses on questions about, what do we want schools to be? What are schools for? And if the goal of school is to generate a body of people who know how to respond to a person in power's direction and serve them and figure out how to get the star sticker, if that's the goal then maybe there is a role of highly gamified play to get there. There's a guy named Jamie Holmes who wrote this book called Nonsense, The Power of Not Knowing, and his line is, the central challenge today is to try and figure out what to do when you have no idea what to do. And so if that's it, there's this whole role for playful inquiry that's very different than trying to figure out how to put together a jigsaw puzzle that right away tells you, yes, right spot, no, wrong spot, playing operation where you get the buzzer the second that you step out of line. I think that it really is a question of thinking about, especially right now in this moment of collapse, what do we want from our schools? What do we want the experience of children to be? What do we want the experience of how children and adults come together? A lot of our work is thinking about what do adults want from that experience? Where do adults' values sit in that process?
0:16:46.0 SM: It's a practice of, I think for teachers to figure out how the work that they're doing, the interactions that they're having with children, the extent to which those interactions and those decisions that they're making support those values and the distance that there might be. So that that itself is kind of looked at as a form of playfulness, that I'm never gonna get this absolutely right. I'm not gonna ever get to a place where I'm certain that the decisions that I make today are absolutely the right ones or that are gonna lead to a certain very predictable outcome, but that my work is about finding my way in making sense of my experience and my relationship with these children in this place and time right now, knowing that I'm gonna continue to learn also and bring new parts of myself to the work. So there's this just ongoing process of observation, reflection, and documentation, right? So what happened? What do I think about what happened? What am I gonna do differently next time? Which is a playfulness, right? It's a way of making sense of your experience instead of being told or promised that there's a way to induce experience that will guarantee that all your problems get solved 'cause there's no such thing.
0:18:13.2 MK: We wanna recognize that in the same way as Susan said, there's this remarkable gift of the classroom of all these people coming together who would otherwise never meet each other and to try and figure something else out, something new out together, try and create new ideas together. It's also profoundly challenging, complicated, confounding, confusing, right? Like all of that, anybody who has ever taught knows that to be true. And if that's the case, then how can we stick with it? How can we find that to be interesting and provocative and life-giving? And Playful Inquiry is part of that, right? Like that requires a sense of playfulness and also a sense of social playfulness, both with the children that you're with and with your colleagues and with families.
0:19:11.3 CM: Yeah. To take this down to like ground level, when you're describing this to me, what I think of is, and I guess this is true both for very young children, but I come from teaching high school kids. For example, stopping class and discussing what we want to do next. What is it that kids want to do? We talk about that together. We have a conversation. It's wholesome. It's joyous. We were just excited about learning stuff and we go and do that thing, whether it be watch a video together, maybe it's a role-playing activity, maybe it's dressing up or it's playing a literal game. I was always a big fan of this. It's not appropriate for younger kids, but we always play Jackbox games and the kids love those games at party games. And sometimes that was standards driven and sometimes it was not. Sometimes it was just, we're just gonna have fun. There's not any purpose to this outside of just community bonding 'cause that is in and of itself important. How does a teacher who is listening into this and they're like, yeah, I agree with you and totally from a pedagogical angle, this all makes complete sense. How do they then wrap in what would be like their traditional content where they're thinking about seat time. They're thinking about, I need to cover these objective content standards. I need to do all these things. How do I make that play-based or where would I even start in thinking about that?
0:20:30.9 SM: Yeah. I mean, it's a question of continuing to go upstream. Do you find the source of the problem, a new set of questions to ask about not only what schools are for, but what kind of schools we need? Like what do we need from school? I recognize what you're asking is that the reality of a lot of teachers currently is that they've got this list of stuff that they have to teach and they oftentimes have to teach it on a particular day at a particular time. I'm not sure that I want to, I don't know, entertain too much the idea that that kind of curriculum that is printed by corporations who stand to profit off its sale, who profit off the sale of the tests that goes along with it, that then gets to decide whether or not... That system that is a choice is in any way supportive of where we need to go as a society that is in the midst of collapse. We can't pretend that all of the things that have taken us to where we are now are gonna get us back out of this mess, even if we have an extra hour for playtime. Right?
0:21:55.0 SM: I don't think that that's true. That said, I think just beginning to ask the question of what's wrong with this picture? What do I do with this tension of standardization and identity and an inquiry and democracy? How do those things even go together? And I'm not gonna pretend that I have the answer to that, but I would like us to ask that question a little more often so that we're tangling with exactly this space. What are we supposed to do about that? That doesn't make any sense actually. Right? And so I don't think that there's a way to easily fix it, but I do hope that teachers will engage courageously in asking these kinds of questions because they're the right people to be asking them.
0:22:44.9 MK: I think your question could reflect and probably does reflect this really wide field of actual contexts that people are working in. I think that people might hear the question that you're asking and say, yeah, that's me. But each one of the people who are saying, yeah, that's me, are working in wildly different settings with wildly different demands. First, it's thinking about what actually is going on in your space and why that and why not something else. If you're in a setting where you've been handed a timed-scripted curriculum that says, here's what you need to do minute by minute, day by day, all the way through, there's just no space for play in that. I think you're right. If what you are trying to do is follow that, then I don't think that this has much to offer you other than to ask yourself, why are you saying yes to that and who is that helping?
0:23:47.2 MK: That's one extreme. Then there's other spots in that spectrum that are around, I know that there's this element of mathematical thinking that I've been told all eight-year-olds should be getting to over the course of the year. I'm not quite sure how to make that happen. And I'm trying to figure that out. And I'm trying to figure out what might be the role of play or playfulness in getting there. Then I think that there's all sorts of space to get there. It may be that even just observing children at play allows you to see connections between what children are actually doing and feeling and experiencing and bringing to the table and this outcome that you have been told those children have a right to consider, have a right to explore.
0:24:43.5 CM: That just made me think of this moment. When I was in college, I used to tutor kindergarteners, first graders that struggled in school at the library. And I remember these are all kids who struggled with basic arithmetic and reading, at least on worksheets. So they were there to achieve help. It was assigned by the school to go there. But there were all of these computers in the library that all had Minecraft. I think it was Minecraft. These kids were hooked on some of the most complex gaming systems and playing on those games with their friends constantly. And they were doing math and they were typing to each other in English. And it seems like they had all of those exact skills that they were, for lack of a better way of saying it, not demonstrating. They weren't showing it on paper. There's a wild disconnect there between, I'm doing it here and I'm not doing it here, and how do we connect those things together?
0:25:42.9 SM: We create this self-fulfilling prophecy by creating this curriculum that is so meaningless, so scripted, so unnatural in the sense of it doesn't move us towards the kinds of things that we know human beings want to be connected to, like relationship. It just, it isolates us. And then children don't do very well with that oftentimes, especially when they're five or six years old. And then we say, oh, they can't do it or they don't want to or they're not motivated. All of a sudden, we have set up the situation in which just proves to us or reinforces the idea that children aren't very capable, creative, interested to begin with. And we take that as fact and forget that we could create entirely different environments in which we would see entirely different behaviors, entirely different responses to the world because there's no child that isn't interested in the world that they're a part of and no child who doesn't wanna be in a relationship with other people and no child that isn't curious. It just doesn't happen. When we don't see it in school, we don't spend enough time asking why not. What can we do differently?
0:27:01.8 MK: In terms of pedagogical approaches, there's a huge number of different possibilities there and it just in what you've set up. One is to say, well, I know the answer. I'm going to create the Minecraft curriculum for these children. That would be one possibility. Another possibility is I'm just gonna let kids do whatever they wanna do and I'm just gonna sit back and I'm gonna do whatever I want to do. I'm just gonna be aloof to that. But I think that there's another space of being able to say, oh, I think maybe what these children care about and are driven by is related to something that they haven't had access to yet or don't have language for yet or haven't had common experiences around yet. And I wanna try and figure out how to play with that, how to put some of that forward and pay attention to what happens and see what grows there. Create a space where all of the children are also paying attention to that, trying to make sense of that, reflecting on that and growing some new ideas together.
0:28:11.2 CM: It sounds like what you all are very much getting at is the systemic language surrounding relationship building, where it's not a day goes by where a professional development person says you need to focus on relationships, but we often don't talk about what that really means at a systemic angle. And to build relationships is very much seeing play as a different way of looking at the world. Susan, earlier, you kind of alluded to like that Freirean notion of moving away from the empty vessels of learners where they're bringing something to the table. Having relationships with young people means that you let them teach you and let them into their world, which doesn't mean that you need to invade their world with curriculum on top of what they're already doing.
0:28:58.6 CM: It's finding what they're already doing and bringing that just to the table of what as what it is. I think about like kindergarten classrooms, first grade classrooms where kids are just pumped at school, they are ready to learn about space and dinosaurs and reading stuff and like it's cool. Every hand goes up. And over time, the more and more that school experience becomes disconnected from that daily lived experience and who they are and what they wanna do, which is have fun and play games. And everything that goes along with that, they lose that joy and wonder of learning, at least in a traditional school sense. They're learning stuff, it's just not defined by school as "learning". What are your thoughts about play in a period of hope? Play as a way to escape so many of the struggles that we see today in the education system and the world at large? How can play foster a better outcome for what we're seeing amongst young people?
0:29:53.9 SM: We're so trained to believe that this has to be hard, unpleasant, practically like children need to be inoculated with the alphabet or something like really, this is going to hurt you, me more than it hurts you, whatever that saying goes. Right? Instead of recognizing that there's a lot of learning and connection and imagination and possibility and hope and trust and creativity that happens when you feel really good. We don't have to be afraid of having those feelings of belonging, those feelings of curiosity, those feelings of really caring about something and making space for that. And as long as we're doing that, as long as we're caring deeply about things in the company of other people, you can be guaranteed that you're gonna get into conflict with them. Right? And that, and as long as the classroom is a place where it really matters what I care about, what you care about, because we couldn't have this experience together if you weren't here and I wasn't here. This would be a completely different curriculum if you and I didn't show up one day. We matter that much to what's happening here. That's what participation really is, right? And of course people wanna learn how to write and of course people wanna learn how to read.
0:31:17.3 SM: They have to because they can't continue to grow and expand and find out new things and continue to be curious and argue with their friends if they don't have that information and don't have increasingly, can't be increasingly skillful in sharing, you know, taking all the chaos that's inside every single one of us and turning it out into some organized way that we can share ourselves with other people and they can share themselves with us, right? Like that's what learning is when it's at its best. This process and this ongoing process of taking things in and turning them back out again in the company of other people that are doing the same thing. That's how we build the world together. So why can't the world be a place where that feels good even when it's hard?
0:32:04.5 MK: Susan earlier was talking about play as an improvisational act, as an act of imagination. What else could this be? And there's something right there in terms of the definition of hope, right? That you're looking at something and imagining some kind of possibility that exists right at the edge of there, some kind of transformation that you might be a part of. And I think that stands right against like Dewey has that line about the real enemy in education is the humdrum, right? Like this kind of bureaucratic deadness that might exist. And that's where hope dies. That's the absence of hope right there. And instead we are trying to create a space of possibility that is not absent current perception, right? Includes current perception, includes current interpretation, but also sees that it doesn't have to be this way.
0:33:06.9 SM: You know, a 10-year-old told us once in the midst of a much bigger conversation that was incredibly interesting, but she told us that play is the antidote to complacency. And I think that she pretty much nailed it right there, 'cause it sits at the heart of making meaning.
0:33:26.9 CM: Those themes are so powerful, right? Themes of joyful struggle or imagining a better world or recognizing that like the reason why it's difficult to go into the definitions of these things is that technically tomorrow we could all wake up and decide, hey, we're just gonna do school this way now. And we just do it. That is possible. I think about the Graber quote, or I'm paraphrasing, but something like the utmost hidden truth of the world is that it can be changed. The idea that all of these things are constructed by people. So if we wanna create playful, joyful classrooms, just go start making playful, joyful classrooms. It doesn't require a doctorate degree in education. Just go have fun with kids and talk about what's going on.
0:34:09.3 MK: Right. It will feel a whole lot better than if you're not doing that. Right? Like there's a specific immediate benefit there.
0:34:20.4 SM: Other really important aspects to this work, I think beauty being one of them, and not because it's about making some kind of subjective judgment on what's beautiful or not, but because beauty is something that draws us towards each other, draws us in, right? It heightens our perceptions and our interest in the world. And beauty is something that makes us feel like we can make stuff, right? It makes us want to make things. And it gives us an opportunity to really sit in an understanding that we can make enough to go around. Beauty and justice go hand in hand, just like play and democracy go hand in hand, right? These are wholly different ways of approaching the experience of education and redesigning relationships in school that attend to complexity and to the complexity of joy that it's not like a party it's complicated and it's full of emotion and possibility, good news, bad news, and in between, right? It's all there. And we need it all. That's what we want as human beings.
0:35:34.6 CM: It's definitely a feel good conversation. And I appreciate you all sharing this today because oftentimes folks that obsess about like educational theory and research and changing schools, it naturally lends itself to a very cynical space, a very nihilistic space because it's difficult to do this work. It's not easy. And there's a lot of forces that are kind of working against you. But when you can offer this joyous, hopeful message, you're making other people actually want to do it as opposed to just like joining you in misery, right? So yeah, it's powerful.
0:36:08.9 SM: There's a tremendous amount of theory, and I want to be behind this and that this is where it's led us to is to this set of beliefs, right? And it's fueled by more than 20 years of experiences right alongside children, right? Who really have taught us that working together in this way is the way to go. It's better. It feels good. It's fun. It's meaningful. It's hard, but it's a kind of hard that makes you wanna come back again and try again the next day.
0:36:43.7 MK: Which maybe is another definition of play.
0:36:45.6 SM: Yeah.
0:36:46.5 MK: The kind of hard that makes you wanna keep coming back for more.
0:36:53.0 CM: Thank you again for listening to our podcast at Human Restoration Project. I hope this conversation leaves you inspired and ready to start making change. If you enjoyed listening, please consider leaving us a review on your favorite podcast player. Plus find a whole host of free resources, writings, and other podcasts all for free on our website, humanrestorationproject.org. Thank you.