Play and Learning (Part I)

Why is it that the older children get, the less play seems to be connected with learning? Personally, I think the two concepts are nearly synonymous. Sometimes I read things that imply that play is great for young children but not so great for older, more serious students. Often, the notion is that all children need more formal instruction and they need to learn knowledge and skills contained in some syllabus or curriculum, something that mere play will not get them. The inference here is that play is informal (and less effective for learning) and instruction is formal (and more effective for learning). At least, that is the inference I make but I strongly disagree with thinking about play that way.

Nevertheless, I try to see the logic in this line of thinking that considers play a low level learning strategy. One needs only to consider any of the most serious professions that often involve life and death decisions, such as medicine and law enforcement or considering other activities where one wrong decision or oversight in planning might mean serious injury or death, such as rock climbing or scuba diving. All of these require the actors to learn knowledge and skills and execute them at a consistently high level of competence. I am guessing (I don’t really know for sure) that training in law enforcement or medicine probably involves highly detailed simulations in which the participants are playing the role they will later actually be in the real world. I would also guess that rock climbers and scuba divers don’t start out by climbing the most difficult faces or diving to record depths. They probably spent a great deal of time training and working up to higher and higher levels of difficulty and danger.

In all of these cases, I think there is a common factor in the training: a level of safety. Perhaps the condition that there is a level of safety could broaden the definition of play for people of every age? That is, that there is a built-in safety factor so that the player can explore and learn without fear of serious consequences. The play still has to have meaningful and real consequences in order for the player learn but maybe not injurious or lethal consequences. In everyday contexts, it is pretty well known that safety (physical and psychological) is a crucial condition for learning. In fact, it is also clear that children who are fearful or anxious experience great difficulty learning and chronic anxiety might impair future learning.

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Most mammals play, especially when young. Think of any litter of cubs that you have seen. There are lots of theories as to why mammals play but, surprisingly, very few have been proven by careful observation and research. Two consequences of play in mammals that do seem to be confirmed by research are:

  • development of social competence
  • increased brain mass and neural connections (cognitive development)

In my experience as an educator, my students have taught me how making things equates with playing; creation and play are deeply connected. Further, I think that if people of any age are creating things they are exciting about, and sharing them with others, the experience is very meaningful and highly memorable. Experiences that are personal (but in a social context) and involve the creation of some kind of product are not merely experiences; they are extraordinary experiences.

I think we all learn something from every experience but I am curious about something: is there really such thing as a passive experience? Maybe all experience can be plotted on a continuum of extent of activation or something like that. If you can plot experiences in this way, I have another question: is there a direct relationship between extent of activation and potency of learning? I have written previously about Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow (1, 2) and I think it is worth mentioning again. To me, flow is a indicator, perhaps the best indicator, of the extent of activation of an experience.

I strongly believe that one can say:

Flow indicates powerful, joyful, natural learning.

just as accurately as one can say:

Powerful, joyful, natural learning induces flow.

Finally, a quote from Fred Rogers:

Children’s play is not just kids’ stuff. Children’s play is rather the stuff of most future inventions. Think how many people played about going to the moon before that was ever a reality. Let your imagination help you to know the truth about your identity.

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