As we get older, play often takes on a dualistic nature. Either we’re competing with others, or we’re working with others to achieve a goal. This week, we’re going to look at both – what they are, and how they can benefit learners.
Let’s start with the often demonized competitive play. Even among children, who are still engaging in play to explore and to learn, “competitive play” is practically dirty language. We’ve built a culture in recent decades where we are obsessed with who is the best at something. We’ve boiled efforts and activities down to mere metrics that are supposed to make it inarguably clear who is the “best” at something. And then we put a lot of pressure on those competing (including on ourselves if we are competing) to achieve the best metrics or to game the system until we have reached those metrics. We’ll figure out what least amount of work and effort will get us the right metrics, and we’ll treat those we’re competing with as if we’re so much better than them.
And then we insist that no matter how hard you work, everyone is just as good and the same. Goodness forbid we hurt the feelings of those who didn’t put in the effort or whose talents lie elsewhere. It’s insane.
Under those conditions, it’s completely understandable that competitive play would get such a bad rap. We only have certain facts about competitive play right. In competitive play, an individual or team typically works toward a goal that other individuals or teams are also working toward. The goal is always quantitative. Everyone is trying to come in first, or gather the most, or complete a task fastest. Something that can be determined through metrics.
And there is nothing wrong with that. Competitive play actually offers interesting opportunities to a learner. On a personal level, competitive play helps the learner develop goal setting skills and intrinsic motivation. The learner has to plan out a strategy for learning the skills and techniques necessary to do their best in the competition, and then the reflection skills necessary to review their performance and alter the strategy to help them reach their goal in the next competition. The learner also has to develop intrinsic motivation. Nothing is ever more motivating in a situation like this, where you’ve studied and practiced and strategized, than your own will to show what you can do. (This is actually one of the benefits of the current ISU scoring system, because it encourages figure skaters to develop a set of programs that plays to their strengths, but at the same time stretches themselves and takes risk.)
On an interpersonal level, competitive play still incorporates strategy and intrinsic motivation, but it also offers other opportunities for the learner. Ideally, the learner will finds a competitor who is near them in terms of level, and will build a relationship with that competitor. This kind of relationship pushes both to continue to pursue mastery, to take risks, ultimately benefiting both learners. (In the right environment, with the right encouragement, this can actually be a supportive, rather than destructive, relationship.) Competitive play is an environment ripe for autodidactic peer teaching moments, because we learn so much from watching others.
Basically, when we don’t remove compassion, friendliness, and grace from competitive situations, they offer a wealth of learning opportunities. And couldn’t we all use a more supportive environment to learn and perform in?