The importance of playing

As you may already be aware, Richard Feynman is a curiosity of mine. I highly recommend his book, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, an edited collection of reminiscences published in 1985. While there are light-hearted anecdotes about safe-cracking, art, languages and samba, what he says about playing and actually doing the things you love has always resonated with me:

But when it came time to do some research, I couldn’t get to work. I was a little tired; I was not interested; I couldn’t do research!

Then I had another thought: Physics disgusts me a little bit now, but I used to enjoy doing physics. Why did I enjoy it? I used to play with it. I used to do whatever I felt like doing — it didn’t have to do with whether it was important for the development of nuclear physics, but whether it was interesting and amusing for me to play with. When I was in high school, I’d see water running out of a faucet growing narrower, and wonder if I could figure out what determines that curve. I found it was rather easy to do. I didn’t have to do it; it wasn’t important for the future of science; somebody else had already done it. That didn’t make any difference. I’d invent things and play with things for my own entertainment.

So I got this new attitude. Now that I am burned out and I’ll never accomplish anything, I’ve got this nice position at the university teaching classes which I rather enjoy, and just like I read the Arabian Nights for pleasure, I’m going to play with physics, whenever I want to, without worrying about any importance whatsoever.

Within a week I was in the cafeteria and some guy, fooling around, throws a plate in the air. As the plate went up in the air I saw it wobble, and I noticed the red medallion of Cornell on the plate going around. It was pretty obvious to me that the medallion went around faster than the wobbling.

I had nothing to do, so I start to figure out the motion of the rotating plate. I discover that when the angle is very slight, the medallion rotates twice as fast as the wobble rate — two to one. It came out of a complicated equation! Then I thought, “Is there some way I can see in a more fundamental way, by looking at the forces or the dynamics, why it’s two to one?”

I don’t remember how I did it, but I ultimately worked out what the motion of the mass particles is, and how all the accelerations balance to make it come out two to one.

I still remember going to Hans Bethe and saying, “Hey, Hans! I noticed something interesting. Here the plate goes around so, and the reason it’s two to one is…” and I showed him the accelerations.

He says, “Feynman, that’s pretty interesting, but what’s the importance of it? Why are you doing it?”

“Hah!” I say. “There’s no importance whatsoever. I’m just doing it for the fun of it.” His reaction didn’t discourage me; I had made up my mind I was going to enjoy physics and do whatever I liked.

I went on to work out equations of wobbles. Then I thought about how electron orbits start to move in relativity. Then there’s the Dirac Equation in electrodynamics. And then quantum electrodynamics. And before I knew it (it was a very short time) I was “playing” — working, really — with the same old problem that I loved so much, that I had stopped working on when I went to Los Alamos: my thesis-type problems; all those old-fashioned, wonderful things.

It was effortless. It was easy to play with these things. It was like uncorking a bottle: Everything flowed out effortlessly. I almost tried to resist it! There was no importance to what I was doing, but ultimately there was. The diagrams and the whole business that I got the Nobel Prize for came from that piddling around with the wobbling plate.

I truly believe in the importance of playing and solving problems that you find interesting; in fact, that’s why I do research. While I strive to adhere to this philosophy, it is not always possible — especially considering the academic research environment in which we currently reside, with its minimum publishable unit (as well as the shadow of the Research Excellence Framework in 2014).

But the main point I wanted to draw from this extended Feynman quote is how important it is in education to stimulate curiosity by playing: tinkering, fiddling and finding interesting real-world problems to solve. And while Feynman was talking about physics, I think this is especially relevant for computing: it is crucial that we give students something to play with! It should be trivial to engage students in computing and technology, but I think this is something that is (in general) missing from UK schools.

However, at a TeachMeet I attended in Reading last night as part of the 2011 Microsoft UK Partners in Learning Forum (where I am giving a talk today), I met teachers who were showcasing incredible examples of innovative teaching to engage students in computing and technology. But as with talking to members of the Computing at School (CAS) group, it is very easy to preach to the converted; it is therefore crucial that this “network of excellence” interacts with people who are currently outside of the network who need help and support.

So let’s try and get a Raspberry Pi, Arduino, LEGO Mindstorms, .NET Gadgeteer, Kinect et al. into the hands of kids at school (as well as exposing them to Scratch, Kodu, Alice, Greenfoot, etc) so they can program, hack and solve interesting problems.

But more importantly, play.

6 thoughts

  1. Many know that the well known brand name ‘LEGO’ means to “play well” and what a valuable toy it is to enable children to build and create the ideas that they imagine. Unfortunately as children mature into adulthood, there is a general reluctance to engage with these types of toys – meccano, plastecine, stickle bricks etc. as children approach adolescence they form the opinion that there is a stigma attached to these toys and that to continue playing with them is a reflection of their own immaturity.

    Conversely – as a teacher in a secondary school, I have not seen this reluctance with the playing and creating of computer games. When children in my classes have had opportunities to create and play games they don’t seem to show the same distaste that they do for the toys they once played with in their early childhood. The sales of computer games, even in a time of economic depression when most of the retail sector is feeling the pinch continue to show the high value of interest in these.

    There is a lot of discussion at the moment about making changes to the school curriculum to raise the profile of computing science and it seems likely that this will be implemented. There is even discussion of the BBC becoming involved. However, it could be 2 to 3 years before this reaches even half of the children currently in schools.

    One of my main motives behind organising the Hack To The Future event in Preston, with other regions following afterwards is that it will provide children with an opportunity to ‘play’ with some of these excellent tools that are available to enlighten children about what computing science is, today. We are not waiting 2 to 3 years for direction from government, schools curriculum etc. This is an event that is happening now.

    The sad reality is that the vast majority of children will not be inspired to give up a Saturday to come into school to discover the opportunities that Computing Science offers, since a Computing Science event will not attract crowds of youngsters because many of them do not fully appreciate what this is. Instead, we will need to identify through discussions with children the activities and attractions that are most likely to stimulate their interest and use these as the headlines to arrest their gaze.

    Many will try to persuade me that computing science is not just about the games industry, and I agree. Computer games are only one small aspect of this sector. However, it is the honey that will attract many children to such an event. As fascinating as the areas of artificial intelligence and the anomalous quantum hall effect in strong magnetic fields are, the average teenager is not at the right stage of development yet to discover how profoundly interesting these matters are.

    If you have not heard about the Hack To The Future event, I suggest you visit the event page above and engage with others in your region to see if it is something you would consider organising.

    The event presents an opportunity for schools, colleges, universities, businesses and other organisations to engage the interest levels of children in the field of computing science. It is not so much about telling the children that attend the event what computing science is, but allowing them some opportunities to experience it for themselves. This will include some aspects of programming, design, use of hardware protoyping platforms such as Gadgeteer, Arduino, sensor boards etc.

  2. We’re currently introducing an Agile process here, and this massive shift in the dynamics of how we do stuff sounds very like Feynman’s idea of play.

    It’s not the same, of course, but there’s a huge shift in the relationship between what you want to achieve, and the breakdown into smaller chunks and achievable steps.

    I’d like to work out how we combine the two, and have an Agile process that can be used to tackle bleeding-edge development or research problems.

  3. Tom – my jaw dropped at the 3:47am timetag on your excellent and inspiring post about ‘playful’ learning.

    Thanks for the lift to TVP yesterday am and for your stimulating session on Computing at School – pity they restricted you to 45 mins!!

    1. Cheers Walter — I enjoyed the four sessions, some interesting comments and interaction. Lots to digest and feed back into CAS.

      And in retrospect, only getting a couple of hours sleep was very silly!

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