From Tools to Toys

An excerpt from Pencil Me In (By the way, if you're interested in buying it, wait a week or so. I'm revising and editing it.): 


For millennia, it was a cultural universal that games existed for learning. True, children had fun, but the games were designed to teach both social and physical skills. Children learned to be warriors, how to govern, how to access cultural narratives all through the act of play. In fact, Plato theorized that one could learn more about a person through an hour of play than a lifetime of conversation.

Even in America, where we have shifted toward a sit-in-your-desk-and-shut-up-and-learn model, our games become methods of accessing these cultural skill sets.  We get the darkest factory values in child's play. Thus, Simon Says teaches social conformity and prepares small kids for the prison-like environment of their future careers. Dodge Ball teaches Social Darwinism. Hide and Go Seek teaches children that transparency is overrated. Best run and hide from others. After all, this is the building block of many adult relationships.

On the flip side, our games teach the best of American values. Hide and Go Seek helps teach autonomy and creativity. Simon Says teaches listening skills and proves to kids that language can be powerful. Dodge Ball helps with teamwork and allows kids to see the value of throwing things at people for sheer enjoyment. 

So, in our class, we create a game to make sense out of capitalism. It's a market simulation game, where students graph their own investments and interact with one another. Throughout this process, they write reflections, send mail messages and join a pen pal network. A few of them even plog (short for pencil logs) about the process.

When the game ends, students debrief the information in their plogs. After words, we set our pencils down and talk. On some level, it feels like waking up for a daze. Students debate the pros and cons of a market system, talk about the risks of speculation and relate this to the economic crash of last year.

The pencil smudge girl from yesterday raises her hand, “I think there is a danger in playing this game, but I'm glad we played it.”

“Can you elaborate on that?” I ask.

“I think the people in Wall Street got suckered into the same vortex that we were just in. They got selfish and that led to the Panic a few years back. It became a game to win. I think that's how it is for some of the people who run Wall Street.”

All of this has me reconsidering the notion of fun. I don't want my students to be amusement-addicts who play a violent Hang Man game or throw wads of paper out of boredom. I want students to use pencils as a tool. However, I'm realizing that games can be a tool for learning. I’m left feeling conflicted and confused.  Perhaps technology can be a toy and the game can spur deeper reflection. Maybe the power in every game is the fact that it creates a safe place to rehearse reality.

So now I'm sitting at home with my daughter. She's tossing a ball at the fence. The ball has been the dragon that attacked her fortress made of blocks and now it's a magic ball that will lose its fairy dust if it falls on the ground more than once. She's playing and learning and there isn't much of a divide at this age.

Perhaps there shouldn't ever be such a rigid divide. Perhaps when my students ask, “Can we play games?” or “Can't we have fun?” the answer doesn't have to be “these are tools not toys.” Maybe the answer can be, “Maybe they are tools, but maybe they're also toys. Sometimes it will be fun.  Sometimes it will be difficult. But I will always try and make sure it’s meaningful.”

And it has me thinking that maybe innovation happens, not because we use our tools appropriately but because we play with them. We hack them. We change them. We use them in ways they weren't intended to be used and in the process, they become better tools. 


John Spencer is a teacher, author, speaker, and incessant doodler.
He is the co-author of Wendell the World's Worst Wizard
and the co-founder of Write About .

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