Play

Play is the essence of learning and creativity. The phenomenon of censoring and thresholding – sensible when one has attained a level of expertise in a subject – gets in the way of learning in a new domain. Why children learn faster is that going into a new activity, they have no threshold. They draw and write whatever they think of, while an adult throws away ten germs of ideas before they write a single word. Sometimes, the best way to get better is by doing lots.

The opposite of knowing how to play is consciously knowing the rules and being able to judge – without having the skill yourself. For example, some people listen to a language all the time and can comprehend it, but can barely speak it themselves. Then it’s hard to learn to speak, because you feel every word you speak is violating some grammatical rule. The solution is to babble. Children learn language by babbling. Talk without worrying about rules, circumlocute, let forth a ferocious river of small talk rather than finding something interesting to say, say the same thing two different times, use new vocabulary even if it doesn’t quite fit. Sometimes, the solution to bad writing is writing more bad writing – until you’ve seen enough of the combinatorial space to feel what distinguishes bad writing from not-so-bad writing.

It’s easy to fall in the trap of knowing how something works without being able to do the thing yourself, and feeling good about it. It’s easier to be a critic than an artist or writer.

V. gave us an experiment: instead of straining to reach your toes, just let your body explore the limits of your comfort zone in stretching. Coming back, you might find that you can stretch farther.

Consider the stereotypical nerd who uses fancy vocabulary for the sake of using fancy vocabulary, even when it doesn’t quite fit. People make fun of the nerd (The world can be hostile to play. So the player has to shut out the world in order to play.), but the nerd is going to learn more vocabulary, because the nerd is playing. The nerd will learn more vocabulary words than a diligent SAT word-list driller, because the nerd will keep doing this eir entire life, and the SAT driller just wants to pass the SAT.

Playing is not about repeating following the same trail once you found it. It’s about trying a new style, mode, genre. It can be hard to fail again once you have a sure-fire and narrow path to some kind of success.

“Aren’t you afraid of creating one great work, and then not making anything as good for the rest of your life?”

Creating masterpieces is not the point. Creating a great work often comes as some kind of new exploration. The Next Thing involves starting over from scratch, not following the same path. It is interesting regardless of success. Success is not the point. Playing again, in an unexplored field, is the goal.

It’s hard to learn in a different domain: often, someone just wants to learn it in order to have the results. A non-programmer wants to write a program that does a specific thing. A non-mathematician wants a proof of a specific result that simulations support. A non-writer wants a story that evokes a certain feeling, or convinces the reader of a specific idea. A non-engineer wants a device to do exactly x. They learn just enough to do the one thing, except often it’s hard to beeline. If you had infinite time, you’d learn to play in the subject, and then come back to your task, and see it in a new light. We don’t have infinite time. It’s sad. A programmer, mathematician, writer, engineer got where they are because they have all made thousands of things that don’t actually “do” anything – just probe the boundaries of what they know how to do.

A good course aims to set up a foundation where you can keep doing the thing even after the class. I hate the feeling of learning a course and never visiting the subject again, and it rots slowly in my brain, a closet that doesn’t want to be opened. A good course teaches you how to keep doing the thing even after there’s no class structure for you to do the thing in. I took a class on “improvisational rap” one day, and it blew my mind. Now, sometimes when I have insomnia, I speak in rhymes out loud, to pass the time. It was one day, but it gave a seed by which I could keep doing the thing.

There’s a qualitative difference between the kind of math that an elementary schooler engages in because ey like numbers, and what the average college student learns in a mandatory calculus class. The latter is more “useful”. But the elementary schooler learns to play, and the college student doesn’t. Sometimes the best way to teach someone to play is to go back to the most basic building blocks of the subject – because advanced notions encourage students to follow formulas.

Someone who likes a subject has a little oracle in their mind about what is interesting and they follow it. How can we simulate that oracle? How can we teach subjects as play, put that little “play-oracle” in the student’s mind?

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