The Interplay Games Experiment

In 1971 the School District of Philadelphia and I made public the revolutionary discovery that kids who play together work together better.

All right, not nearly as revolutionary as I had hoped it would be. But at least we got to prove it. (Probably. Actually 1971 was a long time ago and I can’t find the research paper, and don’t exactly remember if my memory is that reliable, anyway.)

I had just completed a 5-volume curriculum of children’s games. The purpose of the curriculum was to help children develop social skills through playing social games. Admittedly, it was one of those no-brainers. That’s why those games are called “social.” For kids, that’s pretty much the whole point of playing them – exploring, mastering, having fun with the art of developing social relationships.

We put groups of twenty or so kids in this almost empty room. Empty except for three piles of scrap masonite and recycled computer paper, and a big, one-way mirror.

We asked them to build a city for us. “Could you build a city out of this stuff?” we asked, and then we added, “we’ll come back in a while to see what you made.”

The test groups had spent a couple of hours a week over the last couple of months playing games with each other: physical/social games like hide-and-seek, tag, duck-duck-goose. The control groups were kids who were from the same class, but had not participated in the Interplay sessions.

We gave them fifteen minutes. This is what we discovered:

The kids who had played together, worked better together.

The kids who hadn’t played together spent most of their time defending their pile of junk, and trying to steal or grab junk from the other piles. Even though the materials were purposefully selected to be of the no-apparent-appeal-to-anyone junk variety, they spent more time fighting over the materials than in building with them.

The kids who played together eventually built a single city. They started out, dividing themselves into groups around each junk pile, building streets and houses and apartments and playgrounds, and eventually built roadways to collect their cities together into one metropolis.

The kids who played together better, worked together better. Proof conclusive.

So, the School District of Philadelphia published my curriculum. A six-volume set of kids games. They published two editions before the money ran out.

Kids who play together work better together. We proved this 40 years ago. So, how come this is still such big news? How come we continue to be surprised by the connections between laughter and learning, games and leadership, fun and health, play and growth? Why are recesses still so short? Why are our playgrounds still so isolated, still so separate from our learninggrounds? Why do we still allow physical education to become physical intimidation? To degenerate into an endless series of no-win tests and competitions? Why do we still have spelling bees when the only kids who win are the ones who don’t need to learn spelling? Why do we still make our kids, day by day, grade by grade, divide themselves and each other into winners and losers, achievers and failures, when what we really want is for them to join together into a community of learners?

Why are we still so surprised that our kids spend so much of their time fighting over junk when together they could be rebuilding the world?

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  1. Lily Belland on January 12, 2012 at 9:29 am

    Lots of why’s there.

    I think one of the saddest things that I’ve witnessed (over and over, which makes it more sad) is kids losing recess because they didn’t get their work done.

    Those of you that know me know that I am a firm believer in ABA (behavior modification), and that the basic concept of the program is that “the absence of negative behaviors shall be rewarded and the presence of positive behaviors shall be rewarded even more”. So, I suppose it makes sense for recess to be used as a reward for the absence of negative behaviors. I suppose it also makes sense that not getting work done could be seen as a negative behavior, but to me it matters why the work isn’t done. There has to be a better way. Personally, I would rather see a kid fail a grade than see them lose more than one or two recesses throughout the year. That’s just my (and likely mine alone) personal opinion though.

    Another of my dear online friends, Flylady ( has told the story of the lumberjack, who started out wanting to prove himself. So, he worked exceptionally hard through the first day, not even stopping for a break when everyone else sat down for lunch. At the end of the day, he had come up just short of everyone else. The next day, he worked even harder, starting earlier and again working through his breaks, and ended up with an even lower log count. The third day, he started earlier, worked later and again went through his breaks, and had an even lower count. Utterly discouraged, he asked one of the veteran lumberjacks what he was doing wrong. The older man said that every day, when they sat down for a break, they also sharpened their axes. So, as the new lumberjack carried on with his ax getting duller and duller, it was natural that he got less accomplished.

    I think that school admin (and society in general) underestimates the importance of taking time away from work to “sharpen our axes”, and that few people understand that’s what play does for us, physically, intellectually, sensorally, emotionally, and of course socially.

    Love and laughter,

    • Sheila Stone on January 13, 2012 at 12:38 pm

      love this story.

  2. Sheila Stone on January 13, 2012 at 12:46 pm

    YES!! And grownups too!!! I was in middle management at a health care organization for a while and I KNOW it’s true for a while. I am no longer in middle management though. I have really given up trying to change any institutions . I think they are getting more and more institutional and I think change is going to happen around the edges by people choosing outside the mainstream choices and voting with their feet. I think there will be a lot of resistance to this. It will be more chaotic this way and I think a lot of people might fall through the cracks while its happening. I am going to link to this article in a couple homeschooling boards I am on. Many of us are homeschooling because we deeply know that the overscheduled educational activity thing is damaging our kids in ways that will be very difficult if not impossible to heal. Your last sentence points to it.

    • Mark Roest on February 9, 2012 at 3:25 am

      A lot of it is pure colonization. It was not until the crash of 2008 that I realized that the U.S. has been colonized; that the attitudes of the ruling class are the same as the attitudes of European colonial powers in Africa and the Western hemisphere. Why do you think we have gated communities? You are both discussing the critical tool of colonialization: division. Getting people to accept being isolated in crowds and schools. Socialization is empowerment, and socializing teaches people to fight dominators, whether by persuasion, peer presssure or more aggressive means, if necessary. You are right about “people choosing outside the mainstream choices and voting with their feet.”
      About the difficulty healing part: It is another form of cruelty, specifically preventing the child from being one with and fully exploring the environment with her or his whole being, and that is the hardest to heal from because it violates the love and benevolence that a child came in with and has accumulated, and this is usually done deliberately and out of sight of parents. It creates and enforces separation. It is about denial of full humanity and freedom for the child, from a lower economic class and / or minority group, when it separates and leaves separate. It is about channeling the child into dominance, when it is with children of the power elite, who are taught, “you will rule.” There, both denial of full humanity and freedom for the child and indoctrination about the importance of being able to maintain standards of control are combined; the child is told that life is tough, and the best solution is to relate to one’s class only, and to sever emotional ties to others. See The Organization Man from the 1950s or 60s; rising men were moved from city to city every few years, specifically so they would not develop loyalties to their communities.
      See Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States.

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