4.2 Playing for a living

The ability to play well beyond our juvenile period is one of the things which makes us human. For me, play is one of the most useful lenses through which to examine what we do. The most effective informal educators I’ve observed have always been playful in their mindset and interaction. They do it so naturally that, like breathing, they don’t think about it.

We need to understand play for no other reason than it is the universal language of children. Also, although many adults may dismiss it as an activity for the young, much of their free time is spent playing too. Interacting playfully is the quickest route to connecting with your learners when they don’t have to listen and they may feel threatened by your subject.


“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”
George Bernard Shaw (playwright)


The ingredients of play

If you want a role model for how to play as an informal educator, watch grandparents playing with their grandchildren. They know how to create a safe structure and then encourage the child to explore freely within this framework.

How many of these characteristics of playful behaviour feature in your interactions with the audience?

  • enjoyable, open-ended and self-sustaining —  you and they both want to keep on playing for its own sake;
  • voluntary — you can only invite people to play by mutual consent;
  • safe — carries no serious consequences for their physical safety or self-esteem, so everyone is relaxed and doesn’t act self-consciously;
  • amusing — players laugh naturally as a group and behave with an energy which is contagious;
  • trusting — builds trust between the participants in an organic way, e.g. they must take turns fairly and learn to trust each other not to cheat;
  • rebellious — can involve being mischievous in the face of authority or taking turns to tease each other;
  • empowering — all players believe they are co-creating a shared experience and they sometimes allow others to win;
  • fosters creativity, experimenting and risk-taking.


Let them find the game

Children spend most of their young lives trying to find the game in everything they do. They can make a game out of anything. They are the experts at playing spontaneously.

The most engaging interactive presentations are full of games you play with the audience or volunteers — playful bits of business based on interaction. You keep throwing out lures to the group hoping that some of them will pick up on one of these game invitations and interact with you. If they do, then you can dive into the sub-routine for that game, e.g. the “look, but don’t see” technique (4.5), where you let them spot a problem which you appear not to see, no matter how animated they get. If no-one bites on a particular bait, the audience are none the wiser. You don’t have time, in fact, for them to accept all these offers and still deliver your content. When they spot a game, reward them by praising them for interacting in this way and by playing the game with them. They think they are discovering these games by themselves, so they feel an empowering sense of spontaneity and co-creation.


“It’s not the destination, it’s the ride.”
David Kaye (children’s magician)


Protect your play bubble

If learners feel they will be judged or mocked by others for their contribution, this will destroy your attempts at fostering interaction. So, for the duration of the presentation cocoon your audience and stage in a play bubble where people feel safe to play. But this space is fragile and precious. Protect it fiercely. Let one unkind remark from the crowd go unchallenged and the bubble will burst.

If you work with them to create a secure enough bubble, you can even get teenage audiences to revert to a time in their development when they were less judgemental, more expressive and open to playing. They must all regress together, though.


Empower them by rolling over

Children grow up in a world where adults seem to know everything and they know nothing. They are constantly asking adults questions and seeking permission. They are used to being taught or corrected by their elders — in and out of school. As the presenter, you’re the higher-status player in any games with the audience — you’re standing up; you’re older; you know what will happen; you understand your content; and you’re in control.

If one player keeps winning the game, however, that’s not satisfying play. When animals of different ages and strengths challenge each other, the larger animals often self-handicap — they inhibit their physical or mental advantage to give the weaker animals a chance of “winning”. Effective informal educators focus on making their audiences, rather than themselves, look and feel smart. Temporarily giving the children higher status and more control than the adult, is irresistible to young minds. The taught, for once, get to be the teachers. These empowerment techniques allow them to feel as if they are creating this experience with you (4.5). They also find them hilarious.

As with most of the hooks in this book, it makes surprisingly little difference whether or not the group realises you are deliberately lowering your status. The status or power you grant the audience is often illusionary. It only matters that you are not insulting their intelligence or stretching their suspension of disbelief by using this technique clumsily. If you can navigate these status changes wisely, the audience will find them extremely watchable.


“You can learn more about a man in an hour of play than a year of conversation.”


But never forget who’s really in charge

Audiences are complex. They might act like they want absolute power, but, deep down, they don’t. Despite the potency of the empowerment elixir, they ultimately want you to be in charge. They need you to lead them through the interactivity maze to the best possible outcome for everyone. Remembering this allows you to walk the precarious tightrope between audience empowerment and chaos.

Also, from a practical perspective, you won’t be able to use any of the sustained interaction hooks in Tools 4, 5, or 6 if you can’t manage the noise levels of the crowd. These interaction techniques depend on everyone being able to hear what you and spectators said, so your audience management skills are critical.


Involve everyone in your play

Some presenters imagine their connection with the audience as fragile threads running between each of the learners and themselves. Sometimes they can unintentionally damage the connection they have with a spectator or an area of the crowd if they don’t pay them the same amount of attention as everyone else.  Other times, when experienced educators are deliberately being edgy with their audiences (4.3 and 7.1), they can occasionally offend them by overstepping the mark.

In both of these cases, they visualise the threads of connection beginning to sag. As long as they invest time and energy in tightening these links as soon as this happens, though, there shouldn’t be any long-term damage to the relationship. They can repair the threads by interacting with the affected spectators directly or by apologising and resuming play at a safer level. If they don’t act quickly, however, sections of an audience can become permanently alienated — spectators are extremely sensitive to any perception that the presenter is treating them differently from others. Play only works when it is perceived as fair.



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