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Learning Library Blog Kevin Carroll is a passionate advocate for play: His take on creativity, imagination and curiosity impacts learners and teachers
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Kevin Carroll is a passionate advocate for play: His take on creativity, imagination and curiosity impacts learners and teachers

By Julie Randles
December 21, 2015
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A playground in the suburbs of Philadelphia and the quintessential symbol of childhood – a red rubber ball, the one you used to play dodge ball and foursquare with – were all the tools Kevin Carroll needed to find his fit.

“The ball is about your chase – your personal pursuits, your passion and action. How do you manifest your dreams into reality? When somebody is actually chasing their passion, they change. When you get enough people chasing their passion, their red rubber ball, the society changes,” he once said in an interview for a Portland city magazine.

And it’s also a symbol of how high he could bounce.

Despite humble beginnings (at the age of 6, Carroll and his two siblings were abandoned by addict parents, rescued by two “unexpected” Samaritans and raised by grandparents), he joined the Air Force as an interpreter and built fluency in Croatian, Czech, Serbian and German.

With 10 years of real-world experience and a college degree under his belt, he first accepted a job as a high school athletic trainer, then a college athletic trainer, and was named head athletic trainer for the Philadelphia 76ers within five years.

But he had yet to hit the top of his stride. Nike tailored a new position to bring in his creative energy, enthusiastic attitude and motivational spirit and called him “the Katalyst.” There he helped the company develop a deeper understanding of athletic product performance, team dynamics and interpersonal communication.

Or, in English, how to achieve success through play.

Today, Carroll has founded his own creative consulting firm and authored three books: Rules of the Red Rubber Ball, What’s Your Red Rubber Ball?! and The Red Rubber Ball at Work. He’s credited with turning creative ideas into reality at the National Hockey League, ESPN, Nike, Starbucks (You have a connection you likely didn’t realize: His inspirational quote appeared on 17 million Grande cups), the National Basketball Association, Walt Disney Company, Mattel, Hasbro, Procter & Gamble, Discovery Channel and Capital One, to name a few. He was also a keynote speaker at ISTE 2014 in Atlanta.

It’s a sure bet then that he brings valuable insight to the education arena as well. He recognizes its importance, having earned a master’s degree in health education from St. Joseph’s University and a bachelor’s degree in speech communication with a minor in physical education from Angelo State University. He was honored to address the United Nations as part of the UN Year of Sports for Development and Peace in 2005.

“I truly believe that haters are my motivators. It didn’t matter what those social workers were saying about me and how they had written me off so early in my life, or how people in the neighborhood just looked at me and said, ‘We know he’s not going to amount to anything… look at his background!’” Carroll has said.

What is the best advice you’ve ever received? From whom?

Start each day with humility and wonder and then repeat, and repeat and repeat. It came from Phyllis Lane, the woman I call my CEO, chief encouragement officer.

What is your idea of a perfect day?

Probably a very early morning run and workout, followed by a stroll to one of the amazing cafes we have in my Portland neighborhood to get an espresso macchiato, then walking home and listening to some classical or jazz music. After that, I’d watch a sports event, casually read a comic book or graphic novel and have dinner with my family, and then we’d watch some of our favorite television shows together.

You’ve said that every life encounter has left you with a takeaway that helped you achieve your dreams. How is this idea applicable to educators?

I think one of the most important things for educators to be mindful of is that they are a mosaic of all their experiences and they are constantly adding experiences to the mosaic of their lives. More than they realize, the art and discipline of being present can inform their journeys and influence the ones they are standing in front of–students, parents, superintendents, principals, school board members.

It’s important that we be mindful and present when we are having encounters because one seemingly innocent encounter can be the most profound when we reflect back. Choose to be present, take in and store content on your own hard drive – your heart, mind and soul.

If you start off each day with humility and a forever-curious attitude, that’s how you’re going to have wonderful life encounters.

You’re involved with the Imagination Foundation, a nonprofit that provides pop-up learning spaces to foster creativity, entrepreneurship and 21st century skills through creative play. Can you share an example from your travels where creativity was absent? What did you do?

I see this a lot, not necessarily in schools, but in businesses that are very sterile and flat and not inspiring, yet they invite me to come talk about innovation, creativity and delivering the unexpected. I point out that you’re only as creative as the space you sit in and I discuss creating spaces to instigate moments of inspiration.

I have conversations with them and I cite research. I love doing that to make them pause and say, “Oh my goodness, play is serious business. If we want to be a game-changer, we need to not marginalize play, but to celebrate it more, recognize its value and use it in a purposeful way.”

I’ve had a lot of wins in places like that. In these places, they tell me “I play with my son or daughter all the time,” and I say that shouldn’t be the only time you have permission to play. It has to be something you don’t marginalize in your life. You should always have elements of play around you to feed your creative soul.

You have to have a culture that gives someone permission to be playful and creative, because if you have a culture that’s permissive, celebratory and encouraging, that can shift everything.

You’re known for your quote, “Don’t talk about it, be about it,”and your keynotes often touch on putting one’s passions into action. How can educators today inspire students to identify their passion and then “be about it?”

We know that so many times, students have opportunities to be inspired outside of school, so we need to think about how school can be an amplifier of their inspiration. Educators need to be aware of the hours of the day students aren’t spending with prescribed curriculum.

Educators can also explain to students that there are some things they will do in life they aren’t going to enjoy, some activities are tedious and you have to deal with them. Educators should seek opportunities to understand what inspires their students. Ask questions and find out what sparks them. How do I show you how what you’re learning is relevant? How can I challenge you? How can I help you advance your passion?

At the same time, teachers should be telling their stories about why they come to school every day. Why teaching? Tell students your story in a way that’s inspiring and engaging and enlightening. Talk about the spark that drove you to do this work. Tell them why you’re a passionate educator. Then your students will be more inspired and more inclined to share their stories.

Educators that bring their true passion to school each day can increase the likelihood of having engaging and robust conversations with their students.

You’re an advocate for play and speak about play being serious business for adults in and out of the workplace. What activities did you engage in as a child that now resurface in your work environment?

Movement is my mojo. It’s really important to me and I learned early in my youth that movement was a catalytic ingredient to the equation of my success. I understood quickly that when my body was in motion, my mind was free. I could come up with all kinds of things when I was moving.

So if I’m stuck on something or can’t figure out a direction, I’ll go for a stroll or just get outside where there’s more space or stimulus. Or I’ll get lost in a run just to be centered again and reconnect with my community. I know movement is a very important piece to my creative energy.

I’ve played the cello since age 10, and I fell in love with it because I found it fascinating that each instrument in an orchestra could blend together to create music. It blew my mind. So today, I have two cellos at home and I still take lessons periodically.

And comic books are another form of play for me. I’m inspired by walking through comic book shops and seeing how people tell stories with animation and illustration. That’s been a form of play for me since I was 9.

What advice can you give adults for incorporating elements of play into their work lives?

You can find ways to incorporate or instigate play. Rather than looking at it as play, ask yourself how you’re feeding your creative soul to be uplifted and energized.

For educators, energy is their social currency and if your bank of energy is getting close to a zero balance, we know what can come of that. How are you replenishing it? Build ways to replenish energy into your workday. Incorporate it into your curriculum.

I think Dr. John J. Ratey’s book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, could be required reading so students and educators see they need that spark, that energy. And there are schools that use the exercises shared in the book to prepare students for lessons, and teachers can become certified Spark instructors.

Administrators also really need to support, nurture and develop the gifts and talents of their teachers. Administrators should be thinking “I’m going to ensure the energy of my faculty and staff is optimized and that we don’t take it for granted.” Acting on that intention could positively affect an entire community.

Some schools are eliminating recess to create more classroom time. What are the risks involved with this approach?

That’s a sad, sad state of affairs. Movement is critical to children being able to take in new information; there are countless studies out there that prove it. You have to make time for recess!

You won’t get the results you want in student achievement if you eliminate recess, and there are huge social implications. You’re going to have a generation that missed out on learning a lot of life skills during the unstructured play time that recess provides. Students won’t gain skills like how to navigate the world, how to collaborate, how to compromise, how to resolve a conflict and how to respect someone’s personal space. Those life lessons can all be learned during recess.

Your signature mark is the red rubber ball. You talk about how it helped shape you as a young adult, and you’ve shared how children all over the world have found the same joy and release while playing with balls made from all sorts of materials. Have you seen a change in recent years in how young people respond based on their access to technology?

One of the obvious things is a lot of empty playgrounds after school. I believe in the importance of technology, but it’s only there to amplify our humanity. So the adults always have to model for the students. Children do what they see. If parents and others unplug and engage, the children will do that. The more we act as role models of the best ways to use technology and make it part of our daily lives, kids will model that behavior.

When a parent picks up a child after school and is on the phone when the child gets into the car rather than greeting and engaging in conversation with their child, the child knows that the call is deemed more important than asking about his or her day.

We have to understand that technology shouldn’t trump humanity. Adults need to recognize that if they do some of the simple things like unplugging at specific moments in the day to engage in true, deep, authentic conversation, it can be life altering.

I like to tell young people that we’ve got an amazing “screen” called life and it has lots of the answers you’re searching for if you look up and engage and participate.

Do you think students are more creative today than they were 10 years ago, before the proliferation of mobile devices?

They are more creative in a different way. They know how to manipulate devices and use apps. I admire students who use technology to be an amazing catalyst for their creative efforts. I don’t want students to forget how to take a big refrigerator box and make something out of it – constructing forts, using your hands, playing outside. I’d ask them how are they creating their own thing? Have they tapped into their own imagination versus tapping into something someone else created?

Unstructured play is the foundation for the creative energy students can use when they are working with devices. Thanks to play, they can do the unexpected when using a device to make it do more or be more, rather than being constrained by someone else’s idea.

Who is encouraging and supporting students to use their own imaginations? It should happen in their homes and in the places they go to be educated.

So, yes, I believe students are “more” creative today, but their creative foundation is still rooted in unstructured play and the cardboard-box moment. We need to pay attention when they say, “I wish I could do this or that” and then encourage them to imagine new possibilities and manifest their ideas into reality, rather than only consuming ideas of others.