Tag Archives: fun as a value

Fun By Design

free play with friends

I started playing Free Play Softball in Cleveland Heights in 2002. It brought me back to left field for the first time in eighteen years. (I had spent the interim playing the only team sport I was ever really good at, volleyball and grass doubles volleyball.) Taking up softball again brought back memories of having previously formulated two-thirds of a lockdown outfield with Bob Buckeye as member of the Abernathy Special Collections Library ‘challenge’ team at Middlebury Collegebetween 1976-1984.

What changed for me between the ages of thirty and forty-eight? Slower. The hand-eye coordination always was my ace capability, but you have to get to the ball first. I never was a terrific hitter, although the scratch stats I’ve been keeping ever since the Hawken School intramural league (in 1971-1972,) indicate, at least, consistency. Yet, last year I figured out a missing piece of the craft of hitting and reeled off the hottest eight weeks of singles hitting ever, at the age of 58!

Today, opening day, I mention these personal tidbits because in ensuing recaps, as is usually the case, I will focus on being one of the key organizational developers of the weekly game. This is the oblique way of putting the following: I carry the equipment in my trunk, I store it over the winter, and, since 2004 I have been making out the line-ups with an eye on creating the conditions for equitable play. With all those tasks comes awesome obligations and presumptions of ritual and instrumental power. These features have long gone to my head, and to, especially my big now old Scots’ heart.

Everybody wins is my goal.

the odds

Learning to Play, Playing to Learn
A Case Study of a Ludic Learning Space

Alice and David A. Kolb
In this paper we propose an experiential learning framework for understanding how play can potentially create a unique ludic learning space conducive to deep learning. (full paper pdf)


History of the [Free Play Softball] league
In the mid 1970’s, Case Western Reserve University organized an intramural softball league from different departments and fraternity groups which have been competing ever since on a regular basis. The Organizational Behavior Department organized its own team made up of faculty, staff, students and family members. Overtime, the games became increasingly competitive and aggressive, and the OB team, which was much more inclusive when it came to its member composition (composed of men, women, and physically disabled individuals with varying skill levels) found itself at disadvantage playing against highly skilled, competitive, intramural teams.

Born out of this experience was the desire to create a league independent from the competitive intramural league, where anyone would come together to play just for the fun of the game. David, one of the founders of the game, remembers his motivation to start a different kind of league because “softball was too much fun to be left only to those who could play well.” In essence, those words summarized the vision for the pick up softball game and so the league was born in 1991. The league met every Sunday morning from 10:00 am to 12:00 pm at the baseball field of the University campus. The season began on the first Sunday after tax day in April and ended at the first snow in November. David provided the softball equipment and took it on himself to haul the balls, bats, gloves and bases and set up the field every Sunday morning. In the early years the term “league” may have been a bit grandiose for the game. The participation was random and sparse, not enough to make up two teams. Regardless of who or how many showed up, members played catch, hit balls, practiced fielding. Those for whom softball was a new experience learned the rules of the game as they played along. There was no designated coach or manager, or team captain for that matter; those who knew how to play helped those who were new to the game. As membership grew, and the converts regularly showed up, two teams were made up, sometimes five on each side, other times seven. Only after several years was the full complement of ten players on a side reached, and then only occasionally in the middle of the summer.

In 1995, the game was moved to a new softball field within a neighborhood park close to the University campus. Following the move to the new field membership began to grow not only in its size, but also in its diversity by gender, age, ethnicity, socio- economical background, and softball skill level. What had started out as a fairly homogeneous population of OB faculty, students, families and friends, began increasingly attracting local residents who found out about the game from different people and sources. Over time, new players joined from other counties, some of them taking a forty five minute bus ride to the ball field. Guided by the league’s founding vision, “fun softball for all,” everyone was welcome. In the fifteenth year of its existence, the league adopted “Free Play Softball League” as its official name, celebrating the special occasion with anniversary shirts and hats.

The Free Play ball field was in a grass park next to the city baseball fields. Unlike the impeccably manicured city league fields, the Free Play field was poorly maintained with no score board, lights or dugouts. The home plate area was particularly a mess, with weeds growing behind the base and the deep indentations in the batter’s box. The backstop was old and torn at the bottom. It was almost as if the Free Play league existed in the shadow of the city league, unnoticed by the city, or by the neighborhood community. The “league up on the hill,” as the Free Play members used to call the city league, was a highly competitive softball league, with die hard aggressive players pushing each other to their limits to win the game. As Lebron would say, pointing to the city fields, “over there, you get out there every single time to kick ass and beat the other team. It is not like our league.” In the Free Play league, we played a different kind of game.


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Free Play Puddle League

Pete Swings

Pete “the body” lines up the pill. Pete, incidentally, is a lock for comeback player of this Free Play season, seeing as he’s recently acquired two bionic hips. Sunday was likely the latest we’ve ever enjoyed our first full complement of players. ighteen eventually rolled in and the contest ended up a roller coaster ride. We’re quite resourceful, and have been especially so in a season in which we’ve played four times with anywhere from ten to last week’s eighteen players, amidst four rain outs. Although players get to bat a bunch in five-on-five games, the sixth players adds the first baseman, and, the seventh adds a right fielder. So far one constant is the soggy field peppered with puddles.

Free Play Squad - May 28, 2011

Free Play Squad - May 28, 2011

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Freeplay Emerges after the Big Submerge


about to step into one



Stepped into it

After two rain outs, Freeplay Softball recommenced on a makeshift diamond caddycorner from ol’ Field No.8, on a cool but sparkling day. We are resourceful: we started with ten which forces us to play with two outfielders, two infielders, and the innovative ‘pitcher’s mound,’ where infield hits go to die.

By the third inning, two players had rolled in, and we had our first basemen. After arriving at six on each side the game was back and forth for two innings but then became a rout. I’m the handicapper, so the sudden disparity in performance can look like it falls on me. But, heck, I can’t hit and catch and throw for anybody but myself. The opposing team should have challenged the left fielder a bit more! (One fly to left and its crusty, slow denizen…)

Freeplayers May 8

Freeplay Softball, an experiment in self-organization, magnanimity, and experiential learning, continues its 20th season Sundays, 9:30am. Open to all over the age of 13, Forest Hills, Cleveland Heights.

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Spring Training Is Over

Matt batting at the end of last season.

[flashvideo file=http://squareone-learning.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/Freeplay-Jedimaster-Matt.flv /]

Matt speaking before the start of this season.

Freeplay Softball League and experiment

Sundays, 9:30am, Forest Hills Park, Cleveland Heights

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Stop Boxing

Ralph Waldo Emerson om experience

When I’m working playfully in my squareONE transformative learning mode, I’m always doing a version of the following experiment, here defined as its hypothesis:

Given experiential engagement of a novel process and its novel set of data, the learner will be moved to discover insights as a matter of his or her exploration within the field of this unusual process and its unique data.

There is a ‘meta’ hypothesis, surrounding this too: that such insights are not easily derived from other “non-novel” varieties of engaged learning.

My hypothesis has been proved in one-on-one work just about every time; maybe 90% of the time. In groups, where the facilitator–me–cannot apply experienced guidance evenly, the successful demonstration of the validity of the hypothesis approaches 50%. I’d estimate in groups of six or less, the success rate is around 75%.

What is being proved is that novelty is a powerful source for transformative learning. There is a third instance of novelty: the learner’s approach. I understand this to be the learner’s ability to move beyond their most naturally familiar and often habitual approach.

My guidance is fit to the challenge of gently compelling the learner’s shifting their approach to a novel one. I could go on and on about the various obstacles in the way between a learner’s familiar approach and something innovative. Likewise I could describe the facilitator’s skills!

I’ve learned a lot about what characterizes the elite learner in this kind of process. These kinds of learners combine, in different measures, the qualities of openness, playfulness, creativity, and, its clear to me such learners often have some prior experience with inhabiting a different perspective.

As well, negotiating innovative approaches can seem to be easeful where the learner possesses a deep, personal culture. The consequential effect of this is that the learner has some prior experience with, and has practiced their own flexible, (third order,) capabilities. Another way to describe these kinds of capabilities is to say the adept exploratory learner uses a practiced, diverse, repertoire able to be used to explore in novel ways a novel process and its novel data.

In my ‘soft’ theorizing, from observing such learners, it is apparent they can bring to bear on experiential learning what I term, g>a doubled-double loop learning; (the third order referenced above.) This is a style of engagement in which a third, or meta order, comes into play. Not only can the learner re-adapt their approach in the real time circumstance of the process, the learner also can navigate a variety of means for doing this, so, the adaptation found in the so-called double loop is itself subject to a further selection from an overarching ‘meta-loop,’ or, in my terms, diverse repertoire.

An example of this is when the learner uses symbolic data discovered in the novel data set to modify their approach to the data. This secondary data is used to alter their scheme in manipulating, etc., the primary data.

It is possible to point out, or cue, some of these possibilities to less practiced learners. This move goes like this: instead of suggesting ‘Have you ever looked at this other way?’ the suggestion is, “Have you ever looked at how you look, when you’re looking to look, at it another way?” But, this is would be a very unusual move for me to make. (I do not risk pulling the learner into my world, so-to-speak.)

From my perspective, the point is not to get outside the box, it’s to get outside of boxes.

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Treating the Game As A Game

One of the conventions the Free Play handicapper implements is to set one elder against the other. Here the elders embrace after the contest, and you can’t tell who was on what side of a 20-4 score, can you?

F(ather): Suppose you tell me what you would understand by the words “serious” and a “game.”
D(aughter): Well… if you’re… I don’t know.
F: If I am what?
D: I mean… the conversations are serious for me, but if you are only playing a
F: Steady now. Let’s look at what is good and what is bad about “playing” and
“games.” First of all, I don’t mind —not much—about winning or losing. When your questions put me in a tight spot, sure, I try a little harder to think straight and to say clearly what I mean. But I don’t bluff and I don’t set traps. There is no temptation to cheat.
D: That’s just it. It’s not serious to you. It’s a game. People who cheat just don’t know how to play. They treat a game as though it were serious.
F:But it is serious.
D: No, it isn’t—not for you it isn’t.
F: Because I don’t even want to cheat?
D: Yes—partly that.
F: But do you want to cheat and bluff all the time?
D: No—of course not.
F: Well then?
D: Oh—Daddy—you’ll never understand.
F: I guess I never will.

F: Look, I scored a sort of debating point just now by forcing you to admit that you
don’t want to cheat—and then I tied onto that admission the conclusion that therefore the conversations are not “serious” for you either. Was that a sort of cheating?
D: Yes—sort of.
F: I agree—I think it was. I’m sorry.
D: You see, Daddy—if I cheated or wanted to cheat, that would mean that I was not
serious about the things we talk about. It would mean that I was only playing a
game with you.
F: Yes, that makes sense.

(excerpt; 2.3 Metalogue: About Games and Being Serious | Steps to An Ecology of the Mind; Gregory Bateson)

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Hammer Time

Pete the hammer.

New gear, celebrating next year’s 20th anniversary of Free Play softball.

The Free Play Softball League convenes its open system every Sunday at 10am, at Forest Hills Park-Cleveland Heights, on field #8. If you need to loosen up, or take a few batting practice swings, 9:45am is a good time to show up.

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Core of Play

For Love of the Game, Rick Reilly, espn.com

Great, feel good story about two softball teams–one superior, one inferior, and both willing to invoke the deeper game. Many years ago I coached for two seasons mens and womens college club volleyball teams, My division III ladies took some serious lumps against two division I opponents in a tournament. We scored something like 18 points in losing four games. Ouch. However, afterward we were invited to participate in a joint practice, a magnanimous gesture offered by the host team’s coach.

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Field Eight – Opening Day

You can make out Matt’s magic bat leaning up against the back-stop to good ol’ field 8.

Opening day of Free Play Softball, April 18th, ‘the first Sunday after tax day!’

Since 1986, I vaguely recall. Have I been playing with the Free Play crew since, hmmm, 2000? If so: ten years and counting.

Alas, it was cold, it was drizzling and worse, and only five blokes showed up. And, I had to pass all the equipment on because I have a work commitment next week.

Still, we batted around a bit and it seems my undercut and uncanny ability to swing away at crappy pitches has survived the winter, intact. This, nevertheless, makes me very happy.

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Pagan Men of Fall

The tricker treaters came in waves. I asked a group including two Jedi masters to step back and pose for a group portrait.

By my count the Free Play Softball League has notched 28 games, going back to April. It’s something like a warrior ethic that inspires a turnout in November. We close off a section of the outfield, and play six-on-six. (We played seven-on-seven today–huge turnout!) In a few weeks Dave K. leaves for warmer environs, passes the equipment on, and, the final test is passed when at least 10 show up for a post-Turkey day softball game. It’s happened once in 9 years. I’ll be there.

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The Kids of Summer

Thanks to Alice for snapping this shot from September 6. Age range: roughly 16 to 66.

We started our Free Play pick-up softball league in April on the first Sunday after tax day. We’ll play until it becomes too insane to play. This usually means sometime in November, several Sundays after it is merely insane to play.

In a month we’ll hit the third anniversary of the Sunday when I lost a ball in the late fall sun and caught it with my nose. This turned out to be the $6,000 catch, as far as the medical assessment went. This is meaningful this year because I found my old confidence in left field only to lose it on my worst fielding day ever a month ago. As Walt said to me, “Snake bit, eh?”

This year has been interesting for several reasons. First, from May through the end of July, as a result of an email notification experiment, the game attracted between 24 and 30 players. Everybody gets to play–as long as he or she has reached the age of 11–so, as the person who divides the mob into two, the resulting line-ups were obviously long, with eleven fielders, and as many as four people rotating in every inning.

I wondered out loud with Alice and Dave, what this meant for the ethos of the game. It was clear at the time that the game’s remarkable consensual process of accommodation was coming under some pressure from players, including myself, who weren’t 100% dedicated to an experiment morphed to include a substantial degradation in playing time and plate appearances.

Dave, on the other hand, simply told me, “Hey, after July 4th, the turn out will fall back to normal.” Well, it did, but the email announcements were halted too!

Among several developments, two more stand out. Two new players, Mark Jr. and Mark Sr. have come out and delighted the old timers with their consistent and crafty play. Mark Jr. is both a golden glover and a tricky, tactical hit-to-any field batter. He was part of a paradigmatic moment last week, when he drove a swinging bunt fifteen feet down the line and made it safely to first. Except, he was called back for crafting a “bunt-like” hit, where the rule is no bunting. But, it wasn’t a bunt.

He protested to me that “It isn’t fair to make up a new rule in the middle of a game.”

I told him, “It’s fair if you look at it a different way. But, it’s also the kind of game where an unfair rule gets conjured when it serves a bigger purpose.”

It took me a few seasons to embrace how situational rulings emerge in ‘free play!’

The other really notable development is the blossoming of Cat. He’s 16, perhaps? Wiry. He’s been playing off and on for five years. After a big growth spurt, he’s truly arrived with a beautiful swing, rapidly improving fielding instincts in left field, and, well, he’s always been quick as a cat.

It was sometime in mid May he launched a ball about 300 feet and about 100 feet behind where I was stationed in left field. (After nine years patrolling left, I’d guess it was a top five blast.) There’s no fence, so you turn and fetch the home run ball. Fluke? No, several at bats later he hit one 50 feet beyond my more prudent–but not prudent enough–position. He hit it about 275 feet.

Stand back, Cat’s at bat!

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I would have been a surfer. Had I grown up near the waves. Alas, Cleveland.

During the height of the Viet Nam war, I spent the summer of 1968 with the family of my Uncle Colonel Pat in Hawaii, on Oahu. It was quite an adventure. I learned to play poker. I was 13. But the highlights came almost every day, when I ventured into the breaks at Barber’s Point and at a spot–Ones, Twos–off of Waikiki, with my cousin Chris and a neighborhood lad, Teddy. (The neighborhood was Fort Kamemeheha, situated at the mouth of Pearl Harbor, and located a half mile off the end of Hickam Air Force Base’s main runway.)

I was goofy foot and an excellent swimmer. Being a good swimmer came in handy because I spent a lot of time chasing after the 7 foot long Hobie board. The break at Barber’s topped out at about four feet. We made several forays into the summer break off of Waikiki. The size of the waves was similar but the waves were steeper. One day my cousin told me the break was close to six feet. He shunted me off to the edge of Ones, and there I had my only close call, when a soldier on R&R loosed his board right toward my head, forcing me to duck, then abandon my take off. This happened in about three feet of water on top of a coral reef. I just managed to escape getting a rub job from the reef. The other guy’s board missed the side of my head my inches.

Billabong, Teahoopu, Tahiti

The next summer my aunt and uncle had moved to Virginia. I visited, and we made one trip to Virginia Beach, but the boards stayed on the car because the conditions were much better for body surfing. Then, during the next summer of 1970, with a red Greg Noll board of my cousin’s that I had a share in, I vacationed with my family at Hilton Head. There the swells rolling in from all the way across the Atlantic didn’t offer much of a sturdy up-welling and break, so the only surfing, such as it was, happened in the roiling wash. Until a hurricane blew by in Florida, tripling the size of the waves, and causing the 8-10 foot swells to become steep enough to ride down, like sledding on a snow hill. But, it became immediately apparent that their ferocious all-at-once close out, close to shore, involved way too much water for me, intrepid and fearless as I was, to safely surf.

And that was the last time I paddled out into anything.

Lots of surfing videos on Youtube. (Search: Billabong Odyssey | example | mini-documentary) One thing I’m mindful of is that these monster waves in the following videos are breaking in very shallow water, say, a 30-60 foot wave breaking in under 8 feet of water. Scary.

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Sometime in the spring of 2001 my colleague and professional partner Judith hipped me to an interesting project. She knew a filmmaker who was hoping to commence a project about sports and experiential learning. ‘Would I be interested in talking over the experiential learning aspects with the filmmaker?’

Sure. And so Judith waved her finger across Starbucks and a lithe red haired woman approached our table and pitched her project. She told of a Sunday pick-up softball game played on a local diamond. This game has been going on for 15 years; anybody who showed up and wanted to play could join in; it’s duration was set by a noon ending irrespective of what inning it was.

I asked Laine, the filmmaker, what she thought the experiential learning hook was for her film. She told me some more intriguing things about the game. It attracted regular players from all over and, yet, most players didn’t know each other’s last names or what people did for a living. She described really good players who didn’t mind playing with the most green and inexperienced players. Although a score was tallied, she mentioned that a lot of times many of the players didn’t know the score.

“It’s not very competitive, even if there are some intense competitors.” She told me.

I certainly was intrigued. Laine suggested I check out the game myself. After all, ‘anybody can play, no matter how bad they are!’ (I must have chuckled to myself, knowing that somewhere at home lay a thirty-plus year old Wilson outfielder’s glove.)

“Laine, how did the game come about?” Then she blew my mind with her answer.

click for large version

“A professor at Weatherhead started the game up, first on campus and then it moved to Forest Hills. His name is David Kolb.”

“The David Kolb?!”

(Yes. David A. Kolb, author of Experiential Learning. Experience As the Source of Learning and Development. How important is this book to me? It would suffice to state that Dr. Kolb’s essential work then (1984) and to this day provides a cornerstone for my understanding of our field. His contribution is, for me, equal to the other cornerstones provided by the contributions of William James, Gregory Bateson, and Jack Mezirow.)

Yup, Kolb is one of my main guys, and Laine’s invitation to check out Kolb’s pick-up softball game pleasantly shocked me. As Judith said later, ‘I just wanted to see the look on your face!’

So it went. The film never got made or even started, yet I’ve played almost every Sunday since that fateful day at Starbucks. I’ve done so in accordance with one of the game’s ‘meta’ protocols: the seasons begins on the first Sunday after tax day and the season ends sometime in November when the weather suppresses the turnout below the minimum needed to play. Ha! We’ve been known to play with a minimum of six players.
Team late 2008
That first season I planted myself in my old position, left field, and have stayed planted for seven seasons. I take the immense enjoyment I get for granted, except Dave’s wife Alice and he have collaborated on a research paper about the game and its learning ecology. Thus, last season I was invited to be interviewed–as were all the players–as part of their research. I went further, did some research of my own kind, and supplied ethnographic notes. Once I began to reflect and think about the game, about its rituals and routines, and about the way it binds participants to a shared construction of its distinctive ‘lifeworld,’ what had been taken–by me–for granted morphed into a much more fine grained regard of the complex social and developmental system that undergirded the game’s survival cum vitality for over twenty years.

The paper, Learning to play, playing to learn, A case study of a ludic playing space, (Kolb & Kolb, Journal of Organizational Change Management; 2008) incorporates and cites some excerpts from my notes. Cool beans! It’s an excellent work of qualitative and phenomenological research. The Kolbs delineate a clear case using complex evidence in support of an (also) complex hypothesis. Basically, the informality of the softball game nevertheless supports complex processes, some formal, some tacit, that in turn support learning in, as the Kolbs write, intellectual, physical, spiritual, and moral realms. Given how embedded I am as participant/observer in the very praxis the paper investigates, it’s no complaint for me to note that this game-as-exemplar could infuse a more lengthy treatment–even make for a good film!
too cold to play
I’m holding the camera, and Dave, Tom, and Jim are on their way out of the park on November 9th, evidently the last day of this year’s season, and the first day since last year’s last day when not enough people showed up to be able to field two teams.

Just like it was with left field, when Dave delegated me to make out the line-ups every Sunday, calling me from then on ‘the handicapper’, I planted myself in the role. Earlier this year, Tom, a longtime player and our oldest player (70 years young,) said to me, “How come you always put Kolb on your team?”

Well, it’s like slotting yourself in to be Chuck Yeager’s co-pilot!


(Sometime soon, I’ll have comments on another recent publication by Alice and David Kolb, The Learning Way. Meta-cognitive Aspects of Experiential Learning; <pdf> Oct.2008; Simulation Gaming)

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I’m always on the lookout for stuff that makes the connection between fun, feeling good, and anything that goes better with feeling better. (Of course I do work for a maven (and innovator) of positive psychology in the organizational behavior field but I’ve been tracking this stuff for years previous to making the professional match .)

Via Bruce Eisner’s Vision Thing.

The Eight Irresistible Principles of Fun

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