Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Teaching How to Play

Dr. Bill Michaelis at Fun Fest

Michaelis first recognized the value of play through college sports and general class clown foolishness. He decided early on that fun is FUNdamental. and went on to get his PhD in Education specializing in play and human development from University of California-Berkeley or “berserk-ley” as Michaelis quipped. I tried to imagine, as he downplayed his background, what it would have been like studying the theory of play in Northern California in the 1960’s. Visions of crazy smart, idealistic, counterculture hippies danced in my head to the Grateful Dead song, Golden Road. Michaelis credits the New Games Foundation in San Francisco for having a strong influence on him during the seventies and eighties.

We didn’t talk much about the need for play. We are both biased about the social, emotional, and developmental benefits. I wanted to know what’s changed and what’s new in the field of play.

“It’s more diverse. There are more things being studied and written about it in more circles (anthropology, psychology, education, health and wellness). The circles are wider. But there are still incredible challenges. It’s like we know how important it is, but we still aren’t doing it as much as needed,” Michaelis said.

He pointed to some obvious culprits of why we aren’t playing more: tiger moms, misused technology and a consumer driven society that has blurred the distinction between costly entertainment and free play. We both laughed at the irony when Michaelis said that  the new fads in Silicon Valley are hosting “unplugged parties”  and camp weekends.

While everyone from the United Nations to Kaboom, to The National Wildlife Federation and The American Academy of Pediatrics has weighed in on the play deficit crisis facing today’s children, Michaelis caught my attention because his work focuses on getting people of all ages playing again. In addition to helping make the office more fun, many of his trainings are designed for caregivers. There’s a reason adults are told to put their oxygen mask on first during a flight emergency. Who will schedule and supervise the playdates when the helicopter parent suffocates? What is the joyless teacher really teaching when he or she is obviously frazzled?

“We need to be better advocates. We need to keep this conversation going and model play for the next generation. If what we are seeing now becomes the normative, we’re in serious trouble,” Michaelis told me by phone while recovering from knee surgery at his home in San Francisco.

I suspect keeping a man like Michaelis off his feet is like trying to keep a puppy from chewing. Michaelis is laid up until December. Like brushing one’s teeth, play is such a habit for him, he hasn’t let his mobility stop him from maintaining a lively routine.  Until he is able to bike and hike the hills again, he reads political satire or watches a funny movie. He plays board games and uses his wit to describe obscure scenarios with song lyrics. During our conversation, he cracked several jokes. After all, humor goes hand in hand with play, and Michaelis knows from experience its always the best medicine.

For more information about Michaelis and The Leader’s Handbook, Learning Leadership Skills by Facilitating Fun, Games, Play and Positive Interaction, visit his website at or check out a host of other playful products at

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