Playfulness guru Bernie DeKoven is an amazing guy. His new book A Playful Path brims with wisdom and an irrepressible spirit of delight. It’s so good I think everyone needs a copy as a reference book on How To Be Human.
He cheerfully agreed to let me publish this guest post. Thanks Bernie!
There’s an elegant model, called the “Slanty Line” principle, developed by physical educator Muska Mosstonxiv that puts the concept of individually negotiable challenge very clearly into practice.
If you’re a Phys Ed teacher, one of the things you do with kids is help them develop their high-jumping skills. In “non-adaptive” Phys Ed, the way you did this was to hold jumping contests. You’d hang a high bar horizontal to a certain height and everybody would have to take a turn jumping over the high bar. If they succeeded, they’d get to the next round, and the high bar would be raised. The contest would continue until only one person was left. That person would be lavishly praised as the one who established the high jump record for the class.
The problem with this kind of competitive incentive structure is that the kids who need the most practice are the kids who get to jump the least often. The worse they are at jumping, the sooner they’re out of the game.
Try this. Make the high bar diagonal rather than parallel to the ground. This lets everybody jump over any part of the high bar and take as many turns as they want. And what do you get?
Instead of the teacher, each kid sets his/her own challenge. The jumpers who are not so good at jumping can still jump across the high bar as many times as anyone else, they just cross at a lower point. And, when they feel the need to increase the challenge they can just station themselves at a higher part of the high bar.
No one is eliminated. No one is given prizes. Everyone wins. Repeatedly.
Slant the high bar and the authority rolls right out of the hands of the teacher, out of, actually, any one body’s hands, into everybody’s. The challenge (jump as high as you can, and then jump higher) remains the same, but the challenger has changed. It’s not the Phys Ed instructor who increases the challenge, it’s the kids, themselves: the kids as a group, and the kids, individually.
A challenge that is determined by the individual player is more complex, because it requires “reflective action.” The player must evaluate not only his or her own success, but also the success of the challenge. And even though kids can get very competitive, the challenge is ultimately self-selected, ultimately guided by sheer fun.
Without an external evaluator, each kid can devise and revise the challenge. Of course, evaluation is going on, and whether the competition is inner-directed or outer-directed, the fact is that the teacher, your fellow jumpers (both higher and lower), your inner referee; somebody is evaluating your performance, challenging you to challenge your self.
Ideally, each kid should be seeking out his/her personal level of flow, driven by the natural desire for complexity into a deeper and healthier engagement with the relationships between the human body and gravity. But, in fact, there’s still something about the way the task is framed that draws the kids apart.
Even though nobody’s eliminated, even though everyone’s free to increase or decrease the challenge, even though you don’t even have to take turns, the fact is that the challenge is directed towards the individual. With the focus on individual performance, on how high who jumps; the relationship is fundamentally the same.
And what’s worse (or more complex), someone might be attaching meaning to your performance, as if how high you can jump says something about your character!
So, what if we completely redirected the challenge, away from the individual and towards the group? What if the entire class tried to jump holding hands? Or with their arms around each other’s shoulders? Or each other’s waist?
Shifting the focus of the game away from what they can do individually (ME), we focus, also, on what the kids can do together (WE) – on collective as well as individual performance.
To jump the Slanted Bar together, we need to make sure that each individual kid is going to make it. Even though the challenge is to the group, there are still plenty of challenges to the individual player. Each has to be stationed at the appropriate part of the high bar: too high and you might not get over, too low, you might make it harder for someone else. Each has to be able to ask for help, and provide help. Preparing for the big jump, synchronizing the preparatory, simultaneous squat, each individual is doubly challenged. And yet, not competing. Same slant, same task, but fundamentally shifted experience.
Raising the high bar, you intensify the competitive relationship between the diminishing few. The game, internally and externally, becomes one of increasingly isolated MEs (the “winners”) against an increasingly disempowered WE.
Slant the High Bar, and the relationship relaxes, becomes supportive, empowering, healthy, ME\WE.