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#SEL? Think Play

On March 12th, the Aspen Institute released a report by their National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development: The Practice Base For How We Learn: Supporting Students’ Social, Emotional, and Academic Development(SEL)

From the report: “As with traditional subject areas, social and emotional abilities can be taught with a scope and sequence and with dedicated time and space in the curriculum. However, explicit instruction does not mean teacher-led lectures. Instead, it involves creative and engaging learning experiences such as role-playing, story writing, interactive discussions, and problem-solving real situations in the classroom or school environment."

In an education world of stress, test, and the threat of shooters, who can argue against the need for Social Emotional Learning (SEL)? Realistically, though, how many schools can afford to train and implement SEL? How long will it take to teach emotions or empathy with teachers already overworked and many classrooms overpopulated? Obviously, the old-school factory needs a heart, but you can’t plug emotional fixes into a learning culture that has drained every last drop of authentic SEL out of the kids and the culture combined and expect results.

Allow me to suggest an alternative to SEL. As you read the above article, substitute the word “play” when you see SEL. Unlike SEL, Play doesn’t require expensive trainers and resources. Play is already found in abundant, raw form in children of all ages–but sadly play is inert when inside the confines of school. Play is social, emotional mental health that does not need to be taught; it just needs to be invited and welcomed.

Copenhagen, Denmark, November, 2004

These insights into Play do not come out of the blue. As an independent scientist, I was invited by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (O.E.C.D, Paris) to present original papers on Play and Communication at the “Emotions, Learning, and Education” brain science symposium in Copenhagen, Denmark, November, 2004. My work focused on how elements in the art of puppetry could be extracted into a play media, and how play energy could infuse learning culture through the flow of communication and thereby transform it. It is impressive to to see the idea of SEL gaining ground through the Aspen Commission on Social and Emotional Learning. And it is important for us at Play Tectonics to see strong reference to language we set in motion 40 years ago and 15 years ago at the ELE Symposium. In both mission and pathway, the education world in pursuit of innovation is finally catching up to us. I can see them in my rear view mirror. Note as we’re talking about play how naturally play is synonymous with “kids?" Play belongs to kids and inside the spaces where kids are supposed to be learning. I am not referring to recess play; I am talking about the appropriate application of play inside the classroom. Play can easily, practically, and economically be mainstreamed into classrooms anywhere – as energy, as media, as language – at virtually every level. These days, we are seeing and hearing a lot about play. We know it’s important, but there are a million reasons why Play is never consciously and sustainably introduced into classrooms. That’s because the factory is always at work. Seeing play as another extra that needs to be taught is wrongheaded; Play is rightfully nature’s original force of learning. So if you really want to begin implementing SEL right now, think Play–it’s already in our classrooms, waiting and primed for action.

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