On Leading a Playful Life: An Interview with Bernie De Koven, Part 2 of 2

Child-1Recently, on the occasion of Bernie De Koven publishing A Playful Path (a book about, in part, how we can bring out the play throughout all aspects of our life) I contacted Bernie to talk about play and museums and, well, all sorts of stuff. (This is the second half of the interview; the first can be read here).

At a certain point towards the end of your book you talk about learning by playing with something, which I think of as play as pedagogy. You know, we use play all the time in our type of work with young people, as an icebreaker to get them to know each other, to get warmed up and adjust from going from sitting in a classroom to getting to be in a more informal learning environment. We also use games, which might offer a playful way to connect with content. But neither is play as pedagogy, which in your book I read as learning by playing with something, and what play affords for learning.

So when you talk about our use of Minecraft to teach science I think what you are noticing is precisely that. We are trying to bring playfulness into the learning experience because of how it can connect youth with each other, with us adults in the room, and with what’s inherently exciting and interesting about the science content we are trying to introduce to them.

Every area of inquiry that we engage in comes from the fact that we enjoy playing with that particular thing. Why do people become paleontologists? Because of the puzzle of it, and the reasoning that goes on. It’s just so much fun for them. As an educator, it’s not like you are trying to make paleontology fun, it’s that you are trying to bring the fun to the surface so it’s more perceptible.

When I wrote The Well-Played Game, the idea was that even in the most competitive games there are, in the most professional games that you can imagine, there is such a thing that transcends the score of the game: the quality of the game. Bill Russell, the Captain of the Boston Celtics, wrote a book called Second Wind, Memories of an Opinionated Man. In the book he talks about that experience. They were playing another team and it was for the trophy (that’s what you play for in basketball, a trophy, right? or some kind of big thing that everybody wants to have but only you can have it if you are good enough? And they were playing one of those games).

His team was just playing brilliantly but they were up by like 30 points, and right in the middle of that he felt, like, “Wow, I wish those other guys were playing better, because it’s just not fun. It’s not a good game. I know we are playing well, but we are not really playing well together.  We are getting sloppy. When we really are playing well, man, we would become like supernatural beings. Not only are we playing well when the other team is playing well, but even the fans can feel it.  We are all at a different level of consciousness, because we are playing so well together.” The reason why I wrote The Well-Played Game is because we tend to believe that only the best players can every experience that kind of thing.

Well, the fact is anybody can experience it if they are able to adjust the game to the level of their skill, rather than to try to adjust their skill to the level of the game, which they can’t because they haven’t devoted 40 years of doing nothing but playing that game professionally. But they can make it easier. They can make it more doable. They can find a way to play it, so it’s fun. And that’s the point of The Well-Played Game and that’s the same point here in The Playful Path: if you are focusing on creating something where you can play, it gives you access to the fun that’s inherent in being alive, in having a mind and being with other people, and that becomes a path into the very core of what makes you alive, of what makes you human, of joy.

That’s what I wrote about that book for.

What does a Playful Path look like in a museum?

Bernie De Koven on museums! I am so glad you asked.

I went to what I have always thought of as being the greatest museum in the world, and that is the Exploratorium in San Francisco. Lo and behold, it was marvelous and people were at play, in play, seeing amazing things, doing amazing things. It was in so many ways what you want a museum to be. Everything is another invitation to do something.  It’s not an invitation to watch or to read or to have somebody tell you what you are seeing; it’s an invitation to engage every single thing.

But, you know, it’s a little like, “Man, there is so much to see, there is just so much.” The behavior that I saw most frequently was kids just running around, from wheel to wheel and button to button, and pushing a button. If they couldn’t figure out immediately what was supposed to happen they went to something else.  So, you know, it wasn’t really ideal for me. It was a wonderful invitation to play, but there was not enough that the kids could really feel that they were discovering.

So, then the next day, by chance,  I happened to go to the only Adventure Playgrounds left in the United States, which happens to be in Berkeley.  An Adventure Playground is a playground that they would not usually allow in the United States because it’s a little bit dangerous and it doesn’t look good.  It looks like a bunch of junk and, in fact, that’s kind of what it is. There are climbing things. There are things to hide in. They even have a zip line. Some kids have hammers and nails and they are just knocking pieces of wood on to the structures and other kids have little buckets of paint and they are painting everywhere. So you can never tell, if you decide you want to sit down, if you are going to sit on something wet or if it’s going to fall over.

To me those kids were really engaged. They were discovering stuff of significant intellectual depth, just like they would at the Exploratorium, only they were really engaged in it and exploring it in so many different ways, using it to pretend things and to hide from people.

Part of the art of all successful play experiences is that the players take ownership over the experience. It becomes their experience. Exploratorium, not so much. I mean you can choose what to do, and that’s fine, but each thing is just limited to this little small interaction that you can have with it. It’s kind of designed for you to get in and get out. But the Adventure Playground was designed that you could play there forever. It is for the kids and the kids helped each other up; they brought the zip line back to the platforms so other kids could go next; then they would patiently climb up to the steps and wait until it was there.  I mean, they were taking ownership over the whole experience, and without any adult to tell them, you know, how to behave. It was coming from their understanding of what it means to be playful and to be engaged.

That to me is a better model of what I would like to see museums become, and I mean, that’s a tradeoff, because there is a lot of stuff that you want kids to learn… but what can I say.

Am I hearing you suggesting you will put play before learning?

No. I think that at its heart there is no distinction between play and learning. The difficulty is when people separate play from learning and then the greater the distance the more hollow both experiences become.  I mean, you can play without learning and you can learn without playing, but I believe that they come from the same place.

So let’s assume that was true…

What do you mean assume. That was true.

Yes! Bernie, that is correct!


…  what do we do at a museum like ours, where some engagement can be deep, but it has to be quick. We have to move them on to the next thing or a line will pile up. And at the same time we want them to be able to connect with the content, but they can’t have full reign over it. Essentially, how do we support engaged, content-based learning and find the balance between visitor autonomy and the authority of the content expert?

I have not been that engaged with museums, but I do I appreciate them. I especially appreciate museums that that invite discovery and playful interaction. In Indianapolis we have this big children’s museum, which is just an amazing, amazing environment. But the places that I like the best in the children’s museum are the places where the kids just start playing. And they can play for hours, and perhaps only learn one little tiny thing, and they are perfectly content. As a museum, you’d want to be able to follow the impulses of the player, you want it to be guided by not the information as much as by the desire to play, by the fun that’s inherent in it.

I would think that there needs to be invitations for children to play as deeply and intensely as they need, to play with one stupid thing for eight hours for their whole visit, if that’s where they want to do. And I think the second time that they are there, knowing that they had that option, that they will probably be more interested in doing something they hadn’t done before. They will create and follow their own curriculum, providing that you or the institution allows them a kind of uncensored access to things that they can safely explore and play with. Maybe what they need to do is get dressed up like a dinosaur for a couple of hours or maybe they need to sit on the egg and see if they can hatch that egg. I mean, you know, whose agenda really is it? If it’s the institutions agenda then I think you need to question a little bit more because the institution’s agenda should be indistinguishable from the children’s agenda.

So let’s end by going back to something I noticed in your book. I love footnotes as much as the main body of a text. My favorite footnote in your book simply says, “this is not a footnote.”

Yes! You know, it’s my artistic heritage. I was being, oh what was that called? You know: “This is not a pipe.” Thank you.  Thank you Barry. I am glad you appreciated that.

I appreciated that you were playing with us in that moment, in bringing the playfulness into the experience of both watching you write the book and engaging with us at that moment.

Yeah, exactly.  Good. Well then, my work there is done.

So Bernie, shall we say again as we said in the beginning: your book is available for sale and it’s also available for free.

Yes it is. Free download.

So download the free one now then buy copies for all your friends.

Oh yeah it’s beautiful. It’s such a big book, with a gorgeous cover, and it feels so good in your hands. And the pages are big so you can write in them. You can lick them if you want to – you just can’t do THAT with an electronic version.

Thank you Bernie.

Thank you Barry.

About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
This entry was posted in Interviews. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to On Leading a Playful Life: An Interview with Bernie De Koven, Part 2 of 2

  1. What a wonderful conversation! I learned a lot from both participants. And now thinking a lot about the museum experience and what it could be.

Comments are closed.