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The Bigger Picture: to Learn, to Live, to Plork

To Learn, to Live, to Plork

Let’s assume that we are learning all the time. We are learning when we work. We are learning when we play. Our culture makes a big deal about the difference between work and play. Work is considered serious, goal-oriented, and usually unpleasant, although the last one is not always true (take my job, for example). Play is considered frivolous, unimportant, and fun. I am going to invent a new term. It is called “plork”. No, it is not a disgusting Canadian dish involving gravy. My new term describes what we do at Talking Stick.

According to the work of Kathy Hirsh-Pasek at Temple University, there are five elements of children’s play:

  1. Play must be pleasurable and enjoyable.
  2. Play must have no extrinsic goals; there is no prescribed learning that must occur.
  3. Play is spontaneous and voluntary.
  4. Play involves active engagement on the part of the player.
  5. Play involves an element of make-believe.

Work, on the other hand, can be defined as any activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result. Does it matter if the person working is aware of a result? Are goals inherently conscious? The difference between work and play then, could be whether or not the person playing or working is aware of a purpose or result of their actions. Or maybe we have goals that are unconscious—like breathing, eating and learning. These fundamental goals are programmed into us through the process of evolution because if we do them, we get to live to reproductive age. Aren’t we learning when we are not even aware of it? What does that say about the relative values of work and play? Why do we love to play and hate to work?
There is a curious connection between work and suffering in our culture. There is a similar connection between learning and suffering (they call it schoolwork, not schoolplay). Children love to miss school, they hate to do their homework, they cannot wait for summer vacation. Why in the world would it make sense to link learning with suffering when we need to learn in order to survive as individuals and as a species?

Why do we, as a culture, place more value on learning that has a conscious goal than learning with unconsciously achieved ends? Sometimes parents ask their kids what they learned today at Talking Stick and the child answers, “nothing” or “I played”. If you ask a school student what they learned they could probably tell you any number of subjects such as biology, math and American history. Schools are structured to make participants very conscious of the fact that they are learning. At Talking Stick, we are not so explicit with participants about the fact that they are learning. For example, the other day we experimented with a siphon. But it never occurred to me to say, “and now you are learning about science”. We manipulated the factors involved: relative heights of the containers, length of tubing, varying amounts of water. We problem solved: how to fill the tube without sucking with your mouth (yuck!), how to be able to see the water more easily (blue dye), how to pour without spilling (hand-eye coordination). And to the people involved it felt like play! But it did have a goal--to learn.

Plork is Play + Work which results in learning.
Plork should be pleasurable and meaningful.

  1. The plorker should have a say in the goals of their work.
  2. Plork should be optional (As in which work, not whether to work).
  3. Plork should involve active engagement on the part of the worker.
  4. Plorking should involve creativity and self-expression.

The above criteria actually describe my work at Talking Stick, even the “optional” clause. I can’t think of anything that I do there that is not a choice. I choose to do certain things because I am responsible for the consequences of not doing them. If I don’t stop people from sliding down the banister, they could get seriously hurt and I would be responsible. If I did not keep the materials organized, I would have difficulty finding things. If I did not get to Talking Stick on time, I would be stressed about not having time to prepare. Still, performing these actions is a choice on my part. I choose to do them because of the overall goal of this work: The creation of a sustainable learning environment that is the living application of the notion that learning is inherently rewarding.

So, the next time your child says that he or she “played all day” at Talking Stick, rest assured it means they enjoyed themselves as they learned through plork.

-- Katie


  1. My daughter Joanna plorks all day at Talking Stick. Recently, when her teenage sister proposed doing a chemistry experiment at home, Joanna said, “Oh, I know what will happen when you do that. We did that experiment at Talking Stick.” Of course, on said day when that experiment was done at Talking Stick, Joanna simply reported that she had played all day.