Inviting more playful moments

I love a good game. Unfortunately, I don’t have a family or spouse who shares this affinity. It takes some convincing (and a holiday) to get them to join in. Perhaps, this is why so much of the professional development I create is centered around games and play, why I exclusively choose to play games with the kids in my mentorship group, and why games often sneak their way into my everyday principaling and suggestions to others.

My favorite games are those with some versatility. The included rules for Play are adaptable enough for us to riff on the rules and create new games. The Disney Meme game is a prime example. Yes, it can be entertaining to play as is, matching select Disney scenes with a funny prompt card (“when the printer is jammed, and you back away slowly”). But, more often than not, this is a game I pull out and riff on regularly. Last week, a group of our jr. high kids was learning about body changes and puberty. As expected, they were quiet; there was a lot of groaning, embarrassed eye covering, and plenty of blushing. We gave each of the kids a few Disney scene cards and made up our own prompt: “That feeling you get when you think about puberty.” Not only did this help break some of the tension the kids were feeling, but it also revealed to us how they were experiencing the topic. The cards provided a safe way for them to connect with classmates, showed them that they weren’t alone in their feelings of discomfort, and gave them a way to laugh and share. There were a lot of exclamations of, “oh, that one is perfect!” as they revealed their cards to the group.

The feelings about puberty in Disney Meme form

I’ve used the Disney Meme scene cards when a student comes to me with their lid completely flipped and unable to talk through what has happened. In the moments while they sit and take some deep breaths, I pull out the game, sit next to them, and flip through the cards. Usually, this leads to them telling me which movies they’ve seen and asking about scenes they haven’t. As they begin to regulate, I ask them to choose some cards that show how they felt when the incident happened. Then, we make our own meme prompts: “That feeling when your friend embarrasses you in front of the whole class.” Or, “That feeling when someone takes your hat and plays keep away.” Not only do the cards help give kids language, but they also become a safe way to tell their story to me. I gain greater insight into what happened to better help restore from the root of the problem rather than focusing solely on the external behavior that followed.

I love how these kinds of cards help kids connect to emotions build language and understanding of emotions. In all our classes, our students regularly add words to the class moodmeter (based on Marc Brackett’s work). We discuss where we might place a character scene and defend our reasoning for placement based on the feelings we observe. The Disney scene cards help provide a visual language for emotions. They can also be great for thinking about how a literary character might feel as they read a book; they can match cards to the passage.

The Disney Meme game is also a fun one to use with staff to get a pulse on how they are experiencing something, give a safe way to be vulnerable, invite everyone to participate and interact, and an opportunity to laugh and exclaim “me too!” together. This is another instance where I like to make up my own prompts: “That feeling when you remember that parent-teacher conferences fall on the same week as a full moon.” As Brene Brown brilliantly points out in The Gifts of Imperfection, “Play helps us foster empathy, helps us navigate complex social groups, and is at the core of creativity and innovation. Play is an important part of living a wholehearted life.”

I’ve developed some games that we play regularly as a staff. One of them I lovingly call Cards for Humanity. Each card has a word or phrase that is absurd in the school setting (ex: “Fight Club” or “Pillow Fort” or “Mario Kart” or “Graffiti”). I pass out 8-10 cards to each teacher, and we look at the next inquiry block. The goal is to develop a theme, project, or idea to connect the absurdity on one of the cards in their hand to the inquiry block topic. This gives us a safe way to think WAY outside the box, experiment, imagine, be silly, build camaraderie, be curious, and (often) stumble on something genius.

A recent selection of Cards For Humanity teacher ideas to combine with our How the World Works inquiry block; their ideas were brilliant!

Games lead to the flexibility of mind, persistence, questioning, imagining, innovating, meaningful risk, and they are just fun! As Bernard Suits says, “Playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.” Why wouldn’t we want more of this in our schools?

How do you invite playful moments into your day? Any games that are open-ended enough to riff on that we should add to our collection?