SUNYCUAD focuses on the power of play

Thanks to Ed Tatton for the photo of some nerdy guy playing Dig Dug

Thanks to Ed Tatton for the photo of some nerdy guy playing Dig Dug.

The recent SUNYCUAD conference hit one out of the park with its theme on the importance of the power of play. Even though we work in higher education, we too often overlook the importance of curiosity, exploration and wonder in the creative process.

Bob Hambley, designer and partner in Hambly and Woolley, set the tone in the opening plenary by saying that we need to play and be curious to succeed in creative work. He cited the work of Dr. Bruce Duncan Perry, who posited that curiosity leads to a circle of creativity: 

  • Curiosity leads to exploration
  • Which leads to discovery
  • Which leads to pleasure
  • Which leads to repetition
  • Which leads to mastery
  • Which leads to confidence
  • Which leads to more curiosity

The challenge, Hambley said, is that curiosity peaks in humans at about age 5. Is it a coincidence that this is when formal education also tends to begin? Along the way, curiosity is discouraged by disapproval, by fear, by a lack of time, and by craving of certainty. The process of what we call “growing up” tamps our creativity down.

But Hambley thinks we can reverse the process by activity letting our curiosity come out of play. He encourages us to work five things into our regular routine to keep our curiosity strong:

  1. Observe
  2. Inquire
  3. Challenge
  4. Explore
  5. Take risks

The risk-taking part is important. Higher ed focuses so much (too much) on best practices, sometimes to the exclusivity of innovation and new ideas. But we can never evolve without risk. If we fail or if we succeed, the most important thing is that either road leads to learning, Hambley said.

After watching Hambley’s inspiring talk, I emphasized taking risks more in my presentation with (excellent) Oswego student blogger and intern Lizzy Marks, 6 Suggestions for Successful Student Storytelling. To invite student storytelling into your narratives, you have to take risks and trust people. But somebody had to take a risk to create the colleges and universities that make up the SUNY system — and making the system was a big risk in itself. Compared to the risk people like Oswego founder Edward Austin Sheldon took in the 19th century, hiring a student blogger seems like a fairly small deal.

Perhaps the biggest highlight was the trip to Rochester’s Strong Museum of Play, where we explored exhibits on Sesame Street and other children’s programs, rekindled our younger years with classic arcade games and enjoyed the natural wonder of an amazing butterfly garden.

The looks of wonder and amazement in the butterfly garden speak volumes.

The looks of wonder and amazement in the butterfly garden speak volumes.

What was your favorite toy?

A wonderful question that cropped up from time to time was “What was your favorite toy?” For me, it involved trips to the dentist: While becoming creative didn’t require pulling teeth, getting my favorite toys sometimes did.

We went to a dentist named Dr. Betts in Auburn. The most memorable part was that at the end, our reward was selecting a little rubber animal. Which seems small, perhaps, except that our collection of rubber animals turned into a big community. My brothers Joel and Colin assembled their little communities and the Little Animals, as we came to call them, all interacted with each other and had many adventures, from football games to missions of international espionage to battling Star Wars characters.

From the power of playing with the Little Animals, my brothers and I learned three important things that followed us into our creative endeavors:

1. Storytelling. Without leaving the house, those animals went on adventures far and wide, to Soviet Russia, to the moon, to distant planets. We learned to tell a story — generally flights of fancy, yes — but to create characters and motivations and cohesive narratives. I honestly look back with a sense of awe at how sophisticated we were as kids when it came to crafting the adventures of the Little Animals.

2. Collaboration. As noted, all three of us had our own sets of animals, but they all interacted with each other in larger narratives. They generally began with a concept from one of us, often taking from TV or a movie but sometimes just dreamed up, with the others adding to it to keep the action going. In retrospect, I am so grateful for such an awesome preparation for collaborative creative work.

3. Community. Every adventure depended on the Little Animals working together and bringing their own strengths to the table to solve whatever challenge they faced. I still remember my characters like Jerry Cat, Sammy Squirrel, Singo Seal, Danny Dolphin, among others, and how they were all pieces of our larger Little Animal community that showed that togetherness conquered all.

Wow. That’s so much more than I realized. We grow up — or so we think — but how we played as kids continue to influence us. We also need to make sure that childlike curiosity and our willingness to play stay with us too.

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