Are Games Play?

Forgive me, this may seem like a pointless question. And if you regularly spend time with children over the age of five, you’d likely whole heartedly say “yes”. But I’ve spent the last year thinking deeply about engaging with children under the age of four. In all honesty, mostly about toddlers. And I can’t help feel discomfort when I think of the purpose of games. Pedagogically. Developmentally. And meaningfully.

These thoughts are the result of being a teaching assistant (reading and evaluating pre-service educators programming ideas for young children), a previous practicum student in Quality Initiatives for early years programs (where I heard supervisors reflect on their quality goals), and a masters student studying early childhood educators’ workplaces. It is likely also because I am reading From Teaching to Thinking and The Goodness of Rain by Ann Pelo, and I am being challenged in my thinking about what are quality, meaningful, and transformative early learning experiences. Why are we replicating the use of games? Is there a purpose beyond developmental appropriateness? It feels like there is a difference between experiences with routines and games. For example, I feel that shared routines (e.g., I chase children with a puppet before we begin our morning meeting), action songs that are requested again and again (e.g., “baby shark”), or even experiences of sharing informal rules and patterns (e.g., watching two children run back and forth in a space and copy each other) then formalized games that have one way to be played.*

This feels like the difference, in my mind, between informal games with rules, and well-known games passed on my generations, such as duck duck goose or musical chairs. When I read Ann’s stories, and I think about the time I’ve spent with children, the use of games with toddlers feels so incredibly useless to young humans. I would so much rather use myself as a tool to facilitate wonder, spark inquiry, visit a forest, observe an inset, or inspect a crack in the sidewalk than pass on knowledge of childhood games. I just feel so much resistance to spending my time and energy on these things. I don’t feel like there is an authentic purpose to many of these games, often they are exclusive in nature by eliminating someone each round, and I don’t see how they support the development of dispositions for lifelong learning. I also don’t see a clear connection with Ontario’s early learning framework, which is centred on the foundations of wellbeing, engagement, expression, and belonging. Are games even engaging if it’s not your turn?

I should probably back up here and provide some context for my opinions. As a child, I did not like games and I found most of them intimidating. I was fairly sensitive and the “thrill” or excitement of a game was easily mis-felt as anxiety. As an adult, I still don’t really like games. I love to share experiences with people, and when and if we come up with a game spontaneously, I love it. But I hate entering into a kind of dynamic that is arbitrarily designed, easily forgotten, prescribed for strategy that I can’t yet forsee, and that plots me against my loved ones. I just don’t find most games enjoyable. They’re up there with not understanding social rules in certain spaces/places. Which, I might add, is not because I don’t value cultural norms, routines, or rituals. I’m someone who actually enjoys things like silly small talk, the awkward “hello” passing someone in the street, and the game of how long to I hold the door for the person behind me?!? Those things have value and meaning to me.

I should also consider that perhaps I don’t like games because I’m not good at them. But, that wouldn’t be correct. I actually am often good at the games I do try, even if I’m new at them. I’m often called “smart” (which I could spend a whole other post deconstructing), and I know how to feign a good time, joke about what’s happening, and poke fun at my own mistakes. I don’t think it’s that I’m too serious or too awkward. I think it’s just that games are SO random to me, and they often are not introduced in a gentle, meaningful way. They begin abruptly and it’s a sink-or-swim mentality that I know I do well with. Why waste this skill on a game, when I have grad school to survive? Anyway. I digress.

Beyond my own perspective, I have started to wonder about the developmental significance and appropriateness of games even for preschooler aged children and beyond this age range. How can you determine when children are developmentally able and interested in playing Duck Duck Goose? On one hand, I can think of many developmental skills that can be facilitated through participation in these games. Like gross motor skills, expressive language, sharing space and resources, learning social rules… But on the other hand, I feel that these games are so incredibly arbitrary, unauthentic, and, in some cases, a result of lack of adult imagination to partner in more spontaneous versions of play. There are probably well-outlined answers to these perplexing thoughts, so I likely need to just do some googling. But before I did that, I wanted to document this naive disorientation in case any readers wanted to join me in this journey.

*Note: as I type this I begin to feel that the lines between these examples of what is a “game” and what is a routine or pattern are becoming more and more blurry for me. Perhaps I can actually see a rationale for when, how, and why to include games, and their pedagogical importance for demonstrating relevant concepts. Of course, the intentional use of games can be quite useful for creating a sense of belonging, understanding social rules, and for creating healthy experiences of joy, competition, and how to respond to all of the feelings that arise from things like not winning, working hard, being exhausted, and anticipating your turn. I get that.

But are games play?

Play, as I know it, is voluntary, purposeful, and done for its own sake or enjoyment. I don’t understand why there is an emphasis on gamification within play. I briefly consulted the Right to Play website, and the first image is a child with a backpack, and the second are two photos juxtaposed: one of children kicking a soccer ball and one of professional athletes playing soccer. These suggest to me that the purposes of play is for either school-readiness or professional-level entertainment and skill. Neither of these reflect play for its own sake, nor do they represent why play is meaningful and useful to children during childhood. Even when I read the UN right’s of the child, the elements of play are focused on games. Childhood is so much more than preparation for the future and deserves its own quality of life. Have we forgotten what play looks like outside of games? Beyond rules, there is so much room for playfulness, rigor, competition, and measurement of excellence. I wonder if in this reliance and focus on games and rules, might we forgotten the value of spontaneity, engagement without reward, and crafting our own journeys. In higher-ed I often hear that undergrads don’t have skills to self-direct their learning, to chart their own course, and/or to manage how to meet competing priorities. But learning processes are disorienting and knotted, and they require so much inner navigation to begin with. Do we train children to learn rules of specific games and then punish them later in life for not learning the larger games of life, learning, inquiry, and love? That’s a question well beyond the limits of my knowledge, but something I am pondering.

All of this, of course, must be contextualized based on each group of children, what their shared interests are, and what developmental skills they currently have opportunities to engage with. Should I ever have a group of children asking to play Duck Duck Goose again and again, I will (and have) honoured that. And I have participated whole heartedly in the joy and journeys within games such as this one. I think in writing this, though, I have realized that questioning the use of games is entirely appropriate, fair, and necessary. They have a (clearly) place in childhood, but they may or may not meet every purpose in my care, pedagogy, and exploration of interests with children. I likely won’t be able to look at games the same, and would like to be quite intentional and where, when, and how I encourage the use of games with children. I plan to consult a few more resources on the use of games in early childhood to better understand in which situations games are a valuable approach to supporting children in their play/learning/development.

Goal Progression Reflection

Here, I will be reflecting on my progression towards achieving the goals I set for myself this semester. For context, my goals are included here:

Goal 1: By the end of this semester, I will be able to facilitate a 20-minute interaction lesson with students through zoom. To achieve this, I will implement activities in my micro-teaching session, including menti, jamboard or kahoot, which ask the learners to contribute collaboratively to answering questions or reflect upon the information that is being discussed. If I can implement these tools, receive student engagement through their use of these tools, and if I am able to respond to my peers’ answers, I will feel I have achieved this goal.

Goal 2: By the end of this semester, I will be able to implement one teaching strategy for online seminars that is culturally responsive to Indigenous students’ needs and that is aligned with Indigenous pedagogical practices. To do this, I will review four to five peer-reviewed articles on Indigenous pedagogy and teaching approaches and create short summaries (much like the ones in the SOTL snapshots) for my own learning and reflection. I may decide to post them on my blog. While I would like to gauge this goal by getting feedback from an Indigenous student, I also feel that asking such a thing may be inappropriate at this time. If this is not possible, instead, when I create my teaching philosophy statement, I will integrate my new knowledge about an Indigenous pedagogical approach into my statement. I will feel successful in this goal if by the end of the semester I can describe, in detail, one teaching strategy that I can use virtually that is rooted in Indigenous pedagogy and that is appropriate for me, a white settler, to implement in a University class setting.

Goal 3: By the end of the semester, I will be able to create assignment instructions that are rooted in inclusion and equity, such that the grading criteria is as universally accessible as possible to students from diverse cultural backgrounds, lived experiences, disabilities, and identities. I hope to learn more about universally accessible learning strategies through this course (such as the “late bank” article from SoTL snapshot). My aim is to take what I learn in moments like these and keep a list of ways that these can be incorporated into an assignment I make.

Have you met your learning goals checkpoints or already reached some goals? If you have not, how much have you deviated from them?

Regarding my first goal, this is something that cannot be fully achieved within the parameters of this course, since our micro-teaching session is 10 minutes. However, I have already met part of this goal, since I facilitated my mircro-teaching session using menti and a jamboard. I felt really proud of my self for using these tools in these capacities and it went well. In my role as a TA I gave 2 80 minute lectures last week using jamboard, menti, and googledocs, and I had very high student engagement. I even asked for feedback on my lessons via Qualtrics and got really positive feedback around how clear my instructing was. This let me know that my use of these tools in practice might be going quite well. Something I noticed during my microteaching session, however, that is a challenge in terms of me reaching this goal completely, is that I did not have high engagement on the jamboard. This is likely due to what I reflected on last week (too much content for a 10 minute lesson). To address this, I am making some changes to that portion of my activity, so that it is much more manageable for the 10 minute lesson. I don’t believe I’ve deviated from the goal in any other way yet.

Regarding my second goal, I have read 3 articles about Indigenous pedagogy and while I did not reflect on them directly here, I integrated several strategies into my micro-teaching session and cited the authors in my previous post. While I still have a long way to go in terms of how to implement Indigenous pedagogy without further stealing Indigenous wisdom, I am quite pleased that I was able to attempt this and that I stuck to my commitment to doing so. While I cannot meet the second half of my goal through this course since we are not creating teaching philosophy statements, I have signed up to attend the teaching dossier cafes with OTL and I hope that through those workshops that I can begin to create my teaching philosophy statement. Additionally, and for context, I created a teaching philosophy statement last year as part of my training as an educator, so I am hoping to work with that one since it already includes many of the elements of SoTL (e.g., active learning and fostering inclusive learning environments). Learning about Indigenous pedagogy has really challenged me as an educator, academic, and white person, and I am hoping that this is something I continue to learn about. I have begun to make some future plans to continue my learning journey about Indigenous pedagogy through helping to create the Catalyst Truth and Reconciliation Program curriculum on Courselink by engaging with many resources related to decolonizing academia and understanding Indigenous pedagogy in practice. Additionally, I am hoping to engage in SoTL work related to Indigenous pedagogy with a fellow masters student. In this way, this goal has expanded beyond a one-semester item to achieve, and evolved into a broader axiological commitment. The only way I have deviated from this goal, is that I have noticed a need to read articles, books, poems, and hear spoken word about Indigenous ways of knowing, being, and doing, culture, truth, and reconciliation by Indigenous authors – beyond SoTL articles about Indigenous pedagogy. This means reading broader texts about concepts I have to understand in order to effectively implement the Indigenous pedagogical strategies I have learned.

Regarding my third goal, I am pleased to see that I am much more familiar with UDL and UID a this time, but I feel that I have not progressed towards this goal as much as I would have liked. I feel that the closest I have come to this goal is assessing the pre-created syllabus. I have started a list of strategies that I hear about within this course (which is great), but a challenge of this, I have realized, is that I am missing the chance to actually practice these in reality. I don’t believe there is actually an opportunity for me to create an assessment within this class, and in order for me to fully feel like I have met this goal, I would like to actually try creating a few assessments in reality. In the future I should make sure that there are in fact ways for me to meet my goals within the context in which they were created. Finally, I have deviated from feeling committed to this goal, and I think this is because I have realized that in addition to UDL and IUD, relational pedagogy also plays a role in my decision-making processes related to how accessible and relevant my lessons and assessments are as an instructor. This was something Dale mentioned in a class, and something that has stuck with me ever since.

What have you learned are your greatest strengths, so far?

I have learned a lot about my strengths and areas for improvement within this course. Most obviously, I have realized that I have become a fairly brave student. Whether that is due to my age (30), number of years in higher ed (8), other life experience (living with a mental illness as a privileged white woman), or the learning I’ve done lately (related to power, privilege, and experiences of equity-seeking groups), I have began to speak up about difficult topics, hopefully in a fairly inclusive way. One challenge I have noticed in doing this, however, is that perhaps not everyone is feeling as brave as I am. Some folks may feel called-out when I don’t intend that to be the impact of these conversations, or engagement in particular topics may feel burdensome to the marginalized students in the class. One of my ideas about my future plans as a student, is to consider who has the capacity and power to be a brave student, who space safes are for, and who is excluded in these spaces or conversations and to what extent? As a fairly young, white, “mad”, queer, cis-woman inclusion of myself does not inherently mean inclusion of a non-binary peer, a BIPOC guest speaker, or an instructor who is older than me. Therefore, I plan to continue thinking about and reflecting on when, where, and why I will use my bravery in these learning environments. I would also like for my peers and instructor to continue to give me feedback on their perspective when I speak up about something or if I am sharing my opinion too frequently.

What are your biggest areas for improvement?

One thing I have struggled with in this course is fully understanding the expectations. Since this course is pass/fail and I have some of the knowledge of pedagogical best practices, I have felt a little bit like perhaps I didn’t need to read everything fully in order to grasp it. That has turned out to not be the case. I have so much more to learn about SoTL and to be successful in this course I need to ensure I still prioritize reading the materials. In particular, understanding how topics I’ve learned about previously (e.g., active learning or Bloom’s taxonomy) can be used in new contexts such as online learning or syllabi, and this proves I can’t assume I know how to do these things without fully reading the new materials and engaging in the activities. For the remainder of the course I plan to have a more open mind/growth mindset so that I can receive this new information with grace.

Do you feel that anything hindered you from reaching your checkpoints or goals? Had anything helped you?

A few things have helped and hindered me in my progression towards my goals. While I have mentioned a few things, I would like to add that my own motivation has been a driving factor in working towards my second goal outside of class. I have pretty clear and deep commitments to understanding Indigenous ways of knowing, being, and doing, decolonizing my own life, and fostering allyship in various avenues of my life. This larger vision and purpose has really resulted in my prioritization of my second goal, and has also presented additional opportunities within my life from which I can learn, practice, and build my skillset related to Indigenous pedagogy.

Something that has hindered me in this goal is my lack of connections with Indigenous pedagogistas, or knowledge-holders, from whom I can be mentored. Dale mentioned in a class that I connect with people on campus to continue to learn in the ways that I want to for this goals.

Additionally, something that is hindering my completion of all of my goals is poor planning when I made the goal. Several of my goals cannot be completed within the parameters of this class. Whether that was optimism on my part when creating goals, or not fully understanding the opportunities within the class, I now cannot fully meet the goals I set out.

What would you do differently if you were to write your learning goals again? Are there learning goals would you like to add? Any you would like to remove?

As mentioned above, some of the specific elements of my goals cannot be achieved within this class, so next time I write goals I would ensure that there are opportunities for me to meet them (e.g., a chance to create an assessment during this class) within the parameters present.

Additionally, my goals include several elements, so in the future I might want to include less detail in my goals so that they can be achieved in a slightly boarder way (e.g., focus my final goal on one UDL strategy). A challenge for me in doing that, means that I have to read all the course materials ahead of time, ask more clarifying questions, ask for feedback, and maybe even do some research before hand so that my goal is not so complex. Additionally, I may consider adjusting my goals slightly to include the knowledge I have now. For example, here is how I might re-write my third goal with my knowledge of UDL and UID now:

NEW Goal 3: By the end of the semester, I will be able to create assignment instructions that I believe is equitable, accessible, and fosters belonging in students. To do this, I will use a strategy that are rooted in Universal Design for Learning from SoTL. For example, I will try creating assignment instructions that include the option for student choice in how they present their assignment, in order to support the engagement and expression elements of UDL. I will also start a list to keep track of strategies like this that I might like to use, including how to use these strategies in practice and what assessment practices I may need to adopt in order have my assessments match these expectations.

I wouldn’t add goals at this time, since I feel like these goals are still relevant to me. Hopefully, in the future I can expand on these goals and continue my learning journey in SoTL beyond this course.