By Katy Davis, Service-Learning Teaching Assistant, Science of Play Honors Seminar
This past May and June, Emily Mann, teaching professor of human services, embarked on a pedagogic adventure unlike any other at Northeastern, framing a summer course around the science of play with a deeply interwoven aspect of service-learning and community engagement.
Along on this journey were 14 Honors students of varying academic backgrounds (and degrees of skepticism), as well as her trusty TA: me. Having been on a variety of intellectual pursuits under Mann’s brilliant guidance, I had no doubt this would be an incredible class. While our students may not have been so sure on their first day, our seven weeks together convinced them otherwise – and firmly instilled in them a belief in the power of play.
The first week consisted of some literary definitions of play. But as students began to reflect on play memories of their own, it quickly became apparent that this was a more complicated concept than they thought.
In addition to some in-class games and ice breakers, our third day of class brought in the enthusiastic playworker Chenine Peloquin, who threw the students into a loose parts play exercise. They spent approximately 30 minutes in a room full of random, malleable objects, including cardboard boxes, paper towel rolls, fabric, string, old CDs, bottles, and tape. They were given no direction or guidance except to “play.” Some students created definable products, while others seemed to enjoy the process. I think their eyes were opened to this idea of free, self-driven play, whether they had yet understood the benefits.
The following week, we began to deconstruct the meaning and implementation of play itself. By framing play within the field of prevention science, and categorizing it as a protective factor particularly for children with risks in their environment, professor Mann introduced a holistic model of child development and how play factors into it. While this was new to many students—particularly those studying hard sciences—they began to see how play can provide a great deal of benefits.
In a separate assignment, students were tasked with observing public play areas in the city, noting not just how children and caretakers interacted with the space, but how that space was designed, structured, and maintained. As a fun supplement, we took a class trip to the Boston Children’s Museum to see how play is facilitated there and meet those who helped create the exhibits.
In debriefs and discussions, it was clear that students were seeing the connections between in-class material and how this was experienced on the ground. Students were looking critically at the behaviors within play and the contexts behind it. Their comments confirmed that they were beginning to think outside the common perception of play as “just fun.” However, there is an undeniable element of fun imbedded in this topic, and I like to think students were having some fun along the way.