Coding, Creativity, and the Importance of Play

At 30-something, I am lucky enough to find myself back in school in the new Interaction Design Masters program at CU Boulder. As a former teacher, it’s been a while since I have sat in a classroom on the receiving end of instruction. I was nervous about it — how would I do, having to learn a new field, to stretch my learning to places it has never been before? What I found, though, is that some things never change; I always loved school and learning new things, and now I am no different. By the end of the week, I reported to those who asked how things were going that I felt like my brain was exploding… in a good way.

One of the brain-explodiest bits came in my Fundamentals of Code class. I have some limited experience with coding: I have played around with some simple HTML and CSS to personalize past blogs. My boyfriend and a few friends are developers, so I am familiar with some of the jargon and have talked through programming exercises in simplistic terms with them. As part of a year long project where I learned something new every month, I messed about a little bit in Apple’s programming language Swift. These are just minuscule drops in the bucket that is computer science, however, still making me a full-on novice. I didn’t know what to expect from this class: would I be assigned some (I assume) dry reading from a book like those that litter our bookshelves at home? Would class be a practice in patience and discipline as we took notes on how to decode instructions for websites in foreign (coding) languages? Would I cry with frustration as I tried to fix bugs in code that I barely understood?

No, no, and nope. We played. And it’s the best thing we could have done.

Photo by Alexander Dummer

How My First Coding Class Made Me Think of Babies

In the current educational climate of high stakes testing and with the push for earlier literary development and school readiness in children, research on the benefits of play will no doubt be quite familiar to early childhood and elementary educators. In the big picture, literature on the subject has been used as ammunition for those seeking to backtrack policies that lengthen the school day, increase instructional time in the classroom, and severely limit or eliminate recess time for students. At a micro level, teachers have used the principles of play as a basis (and in some cases, justification) for how they design curriculum or set up their classroom.

Even for our youngest, emphasis has been increasingly put on mastering a set of skills dictated by a long list of standards and off of playing and pretending. Teachers are under pressure to do more and more with the school day, and so, quite often, the time for fun disappears.

As a former 7th grade teacher, I can testify that this argument does not go away when young people go from elementary school to their middle school or junior high. It became a big issue at the school I taught at in my last year of teaching when our schedule changed to accommodate more classroom time so that we would be in accordance with district and state policies. Instead of students getting a full period for lunch and recess, during which they could visit teachers for extra help or to make up assignments, their lunch/recess time would be cut in half to allow for more time in the classroom. Teachers and parents came down on all sides of the debate. For those opposed to the change, arguments for how unstructured time to play benefits students, even those who have crossed into the tween/teenaged age bracket, became key to their position.

So what does the research on play tell us about its role in childhood development? If you have a teacher friend on social media, you might have seen them post an article on the it. Googling “the importance of play” or “the benefits of play” yields hundreds of millions of results on the subject. Recently, I read the New York Times article, “What Babies Know about Physics and Foreign Languages,” and was fascinated by some of the studies it cited on how infants and toddlers learn about the world around them.

In the article, author Alison Gopnik points out that the current trends in early childhood learning goes against developmental science and what we can learn from history: “Children in foraging cultures learned by watching what the people around them did every day, and by playing with the tools they used. New studies show that even the youngest children’s brains are designed to learn from this simple observation and play in a remarkably sensitive way.” While human children are not, schools are a relatively new phenomenon in our history. Parenting apps, school readiness tests, and e-readers are even newer.

Gopnik goes on to discuss a number of studies over the years, starting with that of Andrew Meltzoff of the University of Washington in 1988. In that study, he showed that the 14 month-olds learned by imitating adults. The babies watched as an experimenter tapped her head on a box to make it light up. A week after they saw this, the same babies were brought back and immediately started trying to imitate what they saw to make the box light up.

In other studies, researchers found that “babies don’t copy mindlessly — they take note of who you are and why you act” after the babies in the experiment used other factors they observed or heard to decide how to make the box light up, such as whether the experimenter had some movement restriction or was speaking a different language.

Photo by Keith Negley for the NY Times article, “What Babies Know About Physics and Foreign Languages” by Alison Gopnik

Gopnik and her colleagues took this even further, looking at how young children react when prompted to experiment and when they understand that they are being given direct instruction. In the first experiment, a grown up said, “‘Hmm I wonder how this toy works’ and performed nine complicated series of actions,” some of which were necessary to make the toy light up and some of which weren’t. Essentially, they saw the grown up experimenting to find a solution. Then, “the children analyzed the pattern of events, figured out which actions actually made the toy go, and immediately produced just those actions…They used their observations to create an intelligent new solution to the problem.” In a different version of the experiment, the grown up said, “‘I’m going to show you how my toy works,’ instead of ‘I wonder how this toy works.’ The children imitated exactly what she did, and didn’t come up with their own solutions.” This is just one of the studies that show that direct instruction can be stifling to a child’s creativity, as they tend to stop experimenting and reproduce what they understand to be the one method for doing something correctly.

The Transcendence of Play

Studies of this kind are not the only ones on play out there. Unstructured play time has been shown to boost children’s social and emotional well-being, creativity, and cognitive ability. While not widely accepted in the US, it is more common and often encouraged for children in the Europe to engage in “risky play,” where certain dangers many American children never see are made available to discover and experiment with. This sort of play has been shown to increase tenacity in kids and encourage teamwork as children face challenges that they sometimes can’t overcome on their own.

Play is not just for children, however. Those well past their grade school years can benefit in a myriad of ways from introducing play into their work and personal lives. Tim Brown of Ideo discusses how creating a workplace where people can feel open and trusting to play leads to innovation, better communication, and insight in his TED talk, “Tales of Creativity and Play.”

Yes, You CAN Have Fun While Coding

So, let me get back to that Coding class from the past week. While I did take some notes on the functions of different coding languages and how internet browsers work, most of the class was spent doing something much more playful. We opened up the inspector window on a couple websites to see what happens inside the secret, mysterious world of the internet (at this point, “secret” and “mysterious” are appropriate words here for me, though maybe that will change in the future).

We also got on to the site Codepen to see firsthand how HTML, CSS, and Javascript work together to create a webpage that can be interacted with. BentonRochester had created a pen with a button and a counter for us to play with. He gave us a few instructions (“If you change this, the color of your button will change,” “Here is a site where you can borrow code snippets to change how your button animates when pushed,” etc.) and then just let us go. Though I am not a brain scientist, I am sure that an MRI would have shown a fireworks show of activity, including whatever happens in my own brain when I “get” something and dopamine or something similar (once again, not a brain scientist) floods my system. My button ended up being a jumpy, somewhat gaudy, silly thing. It changed size and color at each step of interaction, said “DO NOT TOUCH!”, and what was previously a counter for button pushes became a counter for punishments for not following the button’s direction. Who knew code could be fun? Well, I do now.

During this first week of class, I have heard a similar sentiment from a number of our professors: that we ought to use this year to push the boundaries of our thinking and creativity as much and as often as possible. This is our time to live along the edges because once we go out and get a job with deadlines and a client to make happy, things will change.

I plan to take that advice seriously… by always remembering to play.

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