Why Professional Development Should Be like Child’s Play



Image credits: Designed by Shelly Terrell with photo credits embedded above.

Why child’s play is more than ‘child’s play’

I’ve been thinking about child’s play and professional development in a new light  recently. In English language and culture, we associate ‘child’s play’ with simple, non-challenging tasks and dismiss child’s play as non-consequential in the larger scheme of things.

The online Oxford dictionary defines ‘child’s play’ as:

” A task which is easily accomplished”.

Yet, those of us who spend time with children or take an active interest in child development know that ‘play‘ is the most important ‘work‘  – not only for children, but also for adults. As adults we  most  succeed when we retain our childlike wonder. Playful work is fun and inspiring, yet extremely challenging. Childhood is a time of creative frustration & never giving up. It’s also a time of sweet reward, living in the moment, and enjoying playful relationships.

In fact, childhood is a heroe’s journey.

How strange of us to dismiss child’s play  and dismiss the fact that childhood hurdles  should be seen as  miraculous rites of passage. How misguided of us to under-estimate the purpose of childhood challenges, and how wasteful of us not to mindfully use challenges as a way to foster resilience, creativity, and strength in our children.

Our children are not born into a perfect world. Even ‘privileged’ children  can have very serious issues to deal with. Our children are really born to live out the heroe’s journey.

When we fail children, we fail to arm them with resilience and we over-protect them from life’s challenges. Then when they grow up, they face insurmountable challenges that they can’t cope with. When we fail children, we fail ourselves.

The heroe’s journey is many things – today I will associate it with lifelong learning.

The inspiration is Joseph  Campbell and ‘The Heroe’s Journey’. The idea was shared with me by Shelly Terrell who came up with this  brainwave for the iTDi MOOC keynote closing presentation called ‘The League of Edu heros’ . Shelly invited me to present with her and I was very excited by the implications of linking professional development to the hero’s journey.

Serious fun, fantasy, story and metaphor:

It’s no secret that children love super heroes, yet we don’t often harness the power of super heroes in schools. We want our students to love us and love learning, but we don’t think of ourselves as heroes. If we don’t think of ourselves as heroes, we cannot pass on this creative legacy to our children.


Image credits: WiziQ artists

I have to admit that my first reaction to  this image created by the WiziQ artists was

 What is the serious academic community going to think when they see Shelly and I flying around facebook  in capes”?

I must say though that this made me laugh, as a little bit of constructive  irreverence is always healthy in the face of the establishment. Much more than that though, and much deeper, was the realisation that this represents ‘serious fun’. If we are light-hearted enough and brazen enough to show off heart, soul and creativity, then we are passing on a very serious message that no amount of lecturing could hope to accomplish.

As such, we dare to fly in fun, comical ways in the name of professional development and even in the name of the darker sides of the heroe’s journey. We are both fans of the power of storytelling through comics and digital media – so this image was like a serendipitious homecoming.  Speaking of serious fun, I’d also like to stress that the WiziQ artists have contributed an enormous amount of zap, presence and popularity to the iTDi MOOC, and I think that this alone is creating a sea-change in how MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are being perceived.

What is the hero’s journey?


The hero’s journey is a human monomyth described in twelve steps. This monomyth defines a pattern in the trials and triumphs of humanity over collective lifespans. The concept has been adapted by creative professional and writers all over the world including Hollywood producers featuring block buster movies, such as Star Trek. I created a comic strip to depict nine of these stages. I will show them here in three parts and describe their significance for professional development.

Ordinary world, call to adventure, refusal of the call.


Image credits: Pixton for fun

This comic strip represents a Slice of life or personalized snippet of our teaching monomyth.

The  ordinary world can be likened to a dangerous comfort zone where there can be  no vision of what a meaningful life should be when our perspectives  are trapped in the ultimate lie. What is the lie? The lie is that  ‘seeing is believing‘ . This lie stunts our growth and imaginative faculties. It makes us stick with the status quo even if this comfort zone  is  really a bed  of nails .

We are afraid of the unknown – better the devil you know.

We are likely to refuse the call the first time inspiration knocks.  Life, however, keeps calling. We’ve got to leave the cave in order to live a meaningful life and truly engage in lifelong learning.

Meeting with the mentor, crossing the first threshold, tests, allies, enemies


Image credits: pixton for fun

It’s time to move from the concept of ‘seeing is believing’ to the concept of ‘believing is seeing‘. This is when we meet the first mentor on our lifelong learning path. Personally speaking I have had many mentors, and as my networks expand, new mentors cross my path and inspire me further. My mentors  have helped me to cross the threshold into the unknown and yours will too.

Learn more about building up trustworthy personal learning networks here.

For more about seeing and believing, check out the Pygmalion Effect here and here.

The allegory of the cave

“In this story,  Socrates describes a gathering of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall by things passing in front of a fire behind them, and begin to designate names to these shadows. The shadows are as close as the prisoners get to viewing reality. He then explains how the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall do not make up reality at all, as he can perceive the true form of reality rather than the mere shadows seen by the prisoners.”



When we refuse to go into the unknown we are like the prisoners staring at the shadows on a cave wall. We are shackled and we are living in the shadow of a reality we’ve never seen or felt. To learn more about this, please watch the webinar recording. The main point is that we cannot take the complete heroe’s journey  alone, even though the initial step out of the cave must be taken alone.

I will expand upon that when we get to the ‘ordeal’ part of the journey.

Who can I trust?

An interesting observation I’ve made about my own journey is that we can learn a lot about people from their blogs or You Tube videos – anywhere, in fact, in which someone has a vibrant presence. The people I trust most and collaborate with most often are bloggers, multi-media content developers, presenters, or active teachers and learners on social media who combine the attributes of being supportive, yet challenging.

Bloggers always leave a part of themselves in their posts. Their words are personalised and their examples are real. We feel the humanistic side of academia. We resonate. Another point is that when you know yourself and your own teaching values, it’s easier to recognise like-minded peers and the right people just seem to come along. Finally, you’ve got to give a leap of faith when an opportunity feels right. All of this advice combined will give you powerful leverage in building up positive and inspiring support systems.

Setbacks, ideas, the ordeal, reward


Image credits: Pixton for fun

AHA !!!

This is about our  inner resources.

The background image of human evolution above makes me question  what can happen when we take a look at the bigger picture of our educational history.   The  evolution of learning from the first cave art until today may remind us that we are the sum of our experiences . We are also wired to conform and protect the status quo . Yet our educational history also features  revolution and enlightenment.  Perhaps we can sometimes turn evolution on its head in the  metamorphosis of a significant ‘AHA’ moment. This moment, of course, can only ever exist outside the cave.

The ordeal

When you are in this place you are stuck in an impossible reality and there is apparently no way out. ‘The ordeal ‘ is described in metaphorical terms by Daniel J Siegal, author of Mindsight, who says that ………

We each have a sea inside. It’s a wonderfully rich place filled with thoughts, feelings, memories, dreams, hopes and wishes. But it can also be a turbulent place where we experience the dark side of all those wonderful feelings and thoughts – fears, sorrows, regrets, and nightmares. When this inner sea seems to crash in on us, threatening to drag us down below to the dark depths, it can make us feel as if we are drowning. Sometimes these feelings are just a passing thing, but sometimes they become so much a part of the very essence of who we are that it may not even occur to us that we can change them. ” Daniel J Siegal

To read more about ‘Mindsight’, with the river & the sea analogies, check out this article.

What happens when there’s no way out?



You develop different types of coping behavior in order to survive. You try making the most of things, and you trying to adapt to this restricting reality. You don’t realize that the ordeal is part of your life journey and you begin to think that it’s your final destiny. This leads you deeper into trouble and further away from your true self, till you may lose your sense of self completely.

One day, you wake up from this stunted coma. You know that if you don’t start growing you’ll wither away completely. Daniel J Siegal says that the way out is through deliberately moving away from the auto pilot of our habitual responses through focused attention. We can become aware of our feelings without being swept away by them – we name and tame our emotions. We stop labeling ourselves – and instead of saying ‘I’m sad, we say ‘I feel sad”.

When we are one step removed from the problem, we can see with new perspectives. When we are not able to do this ourselves, we realise how much we need other people. Not the people who encourage us to ‘make do with’ what life has thrown at us, but the people who tell us ‘enough is enough – you can change anything if you dare’.

When you decide to change & grow, you give up trying to fix things alone. You swallow your pride and you reach out to others. Soon you realize that other people can see your reality through different perspectives, and they can see the way out for you – you begin to see the world through their eyes, through multiple perspectives.

Every problem has a solution and you are stronger than you think.

You are stronger with this support. In fact it was almost worth the ordeal just to be humbled into realizing how the right people can lift you up so easily.

Yet, you still have to go through the ordeal yourself, no one can do it for you, and others may be depending on you.

The last steps in your journey


Image credits:Pixton for fun

Professional Development Communities

Some of us who have been engaged in professional development online and around the world for quite some time would like to help you to ‘make it home’. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, your yellow brick road will take you to your elixir but you will need to find the road back. Through your inspiring networks you’ll learn how to click those shiny red shoes and take your learning home to those who will need it for their own personal journeys.

Special thanks to Shelly Terrell for coming up with the concept of the heroe’s journey with regard to professional development and lifelong learning.

Shelly gave a very moving presentation on the heroe’s journey that none of us will forget. To fully appreciate this post, please watch the recording and accept this call to action.

The call to action is for you to cross the first threshold with the help of your mentors. The first step for you is to join two main collaborative communities.

The Edugoals.

Brain-friendly Communities Online.


When we learn to see ourselves as heroes, we begin to act like heroes. This inspires our students and it also challenges them to face their own ordeals and find their own life purpose so as to live a creative and meaningful life.

I’ll leave you with the recording here:

Here is the powerpoint presentation for your viewing pleasure:





Siegal, J, D (2010), “Mindsight”, Bantom Books
Campbell, J , Moyers B, ” The Power Of Myth”, (1991), Anchor Books
Campbell, J (2008 third edition), ” The Hero with a thousand faces”, Joseph Campbell Foundation, (1949 original edition), Pantheon Books
Wormeli, R (2009), “Metaphors and Analogies”, Stenhouse publishers

Let’s not forget Wikpedia references to be on the safe side.
 Wiki – references

Sylvia Guinan

is an online English teacher, writer and blogger who facilitates professional development online. She uses brain-friendly techniques to help students and teachers around the world. She designs educational materials, develops courses, writes resource papers and publishes ebooks. Her work is the result of much research into the psychology of learning, as well as hands-on experience with multi-media technology.

3 thoughts on “Why Professional Development Should Be like Child’s Play

  1. Yes, you’re right, the step outside is deeply personal and you must do it alone – but others can show the way and offer assistance once you force yourself into the blinding sunlight.

    The tension is interesting but not necessarily paradoxical.

    Yes, it changes us because the whole point is to change.

    Why do you think that the step outside is passive?

    I’m using ‘ordeal’ as that is how the heroe’s journey is expressed by Thomas Campbell ( as far as I know – I can check)

    There’s nothing wrong with healthy pride – in fact the whole concept of what I want to share is that of developing the kind of healthy pride that lets you show off (in a positive way) and express yourself authentically.

    Do you think I imply being set free as opposed to setting yourself free? I think I made it clear that it’s a choice to set yourself free.

    The ordeal is the life/death struggle in its many shapes and forms – it may be psychological life/death – depression versus joy – etc.

    Thanks for your interesting thoughts:))

    1. Of course we are talking at cross purposes. Your post is primarily about professional development, whereas Plato (in the allegory of the cave) was interested in what might be called enlightenment (and there is no reason to think that enlightenment is an aid to professional development – it may well be the opposite, especially if the hierarchy we are striving to climb professionally is a cave hierarchy).

      “it’s a choice to set yourself free” – here we disagree. The deepest liberation (if we reflect upon the crucial moments in our lives when a new way of looking at things opened itself up to us) is more of an event (something that happens to us) than a choice. The choice presupposes a view of what is to be chosen. The most important choices in our lives are those in which we feel called upon to choose one thing rather than another. The deeper liberation occurs not through the act of choice but through the experience of seeing what is to be chosen.

      We see this in Greece at the moment. The Greeks have the choice to free themselves, but they do not take it. Try persuading them to take it. It will be futile. Something must happen to generate an experience in which they see the value of what is to be chosen. Of course, after that experience they will have to choose to act and have the courage to see it through, but the deeper liberation will be that initial experiential disentanglement from the world of lies. (Although, again, we are not talking here about the professional development.)

  2. Of course the myth of the hero is to be found in the shadows flickering on the cave wall, but leaving that point aside, I am interested in what you say about the solitude of the escape from an untrue world. There is a tension, is there not?, between this: “When we refuse to go into the unknown we are like the prisoners staring at the shadows on a cave wall…The main point is that we cannot take the hero’s journey alone. I will expand upon that when we get to the ‘ordeal’ part of the journey.”

    And this: “Yet, you still have to go through the ordeal yourself, no one can do it for you, and others may be depending on you.”

    My suspicion is that your second idea is more correct: The step out of the cave is a deeply personal one. And perhaps it is even more complicated than this, since the movement out of the cave changes us. Part of the complexity is the passivity of this move. You word “ordeal” might not be the best, but it implies something we undergo, rather than something we do. Liberation (from the cave) is something we have to be grateful for, rather than something to make us proud of our mythical heroism.

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