Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Play = Learning

After observing our son at 2 years and 2 months old create his own 'curriculum' for learning about his world, we are more convinced that he does not need us to tell him what, how, for how long and when to learn. Nor does he need all the stuff we think he needs to use in order to learn. By observing him, we have realised that he truly learns through his own initiative by sheer fun play - without a lot of our help and without expensive props. We are but his guides in his playing and learning process.

Here are a few things we observed on a 1 week holiday with a bare minimum of toys (educational or non-educational):

Maths: While we, the parents, chatted away, our son was pretending to buy flowers from a bush and paying an invisible man behind a fence for them. He paid the man $4 or $6 for 10 flowers. He would count them one by one.

Art and Language: After reading Harold and the Purple Crayon, he would scribble all over the shower walls with soap and tell elaborate stories about the animals or people he was drawing.

Make Believe or Imagination: He pretended to be a tortoise and crawled all over the sofa with a pillow tied to his back. He ate tortoise food, relaxed and then raced with a hare (either Daddy or Mama) to the finish line.

Science: He enjoyed the different textures of sand and marveled at different prints (feet, paw, tractor) on the sand.

Music: He played his ukelele and banged on cushions as he sang his own songs and danced without a care in the world.

After reading Play=Learning: How Play Motivates and Enhances Children's Cognitive and Social-Emotional Growth, we are more motivated to let our son discover the world through play. Here are some interesting excerpts:

From the living room to the classroom, children are being increasingly programmed and structured - as are the teachers who teach them.

Our living rooms and classrooms have become pressure cookers, and children are getting less opportunity to be active physical players. In fact, some have suggested that children suffer from a "nature deficit disorder" because they spend so little time outside to play... Parents praise videos like Baby Einstein for having beautiful trees, apparantly forgetting that these are available for endless inspection, and for free, in the real world.

In a five-country (France, Germany, Great Britain, Japan, and the United States) study conducted by LEGO on parents' beliefs about play, 94% of the parents agreed that time spent playing is time spent learning. Nonetheless, parents felt that more time should be given to cognitive tasks at the expense of free time when play occurs. Parents in this study seem confused about whether play is really a way to learn.

Play is important for building social competence and confidence in dealing with peers... pretend play... to work through the effects of the stress... Play is also critical to self-regulation and children's ability to manage their own behavior and emotions... For example... to delay gratification, or to calm... when... upset... Make-believe play is rule based, and children work at following the rules. They also use play as a way to work through their own emotions... Play and unscheduled downtime are central to our emotional well-being throughout our lives.

In today's world, the pressure on the educational establishment is intense... A scan of current literature might easily lead one to believe that the achievement of school readiness through children's play is an oxymoron. When children are in environments where learning is occurring in a meaningful context, where they have choices, and where they are encouraged to follow their interest, learning takes place best. Ironically... we have adopted a metaphor of the child as "empty vessel"... However, the research tells us exactly the opposite.

In preschool, when children are pressured to learn in schools with "academic" as opposed to developmentally appropriate curricula, they report being more anxious and perfectionistic than their more playful peers. They are no more ahead in first grade in academic achievement. Such programs also have the effect of reducing children's motivation and making them have lower expectations for their academic abilities, less pride in their achievements, and more dependency on adults - regardless of social class. Children who have been schooled to think that there is one right answer and that learning is memorization are also dependent on adults for their learning. They have not learned how to learn.

On the other hand, there is also evidence that children learn what they are taught. Children who experience "direct instruction" with emphasis on drill and practice can learn lessons and even achieve general cognitive gains. Differences arise in variables that matter for socialization and for instilling a love of learning. Children in the direct instruction programs had higher rates of delinquency, were less willing to help other children, and were more likely to experience emotional problems... these findings emerged regardless of gender, race, and socioeconomic status.

In sum, treating children like empty vessels whose heads can be filled with knowledge because we select what they will learn and teach it directly leads to problems in two domains. First, studies show that children in these programs often learn less academically than their peers who are not being taught concepts directly by in a more playful manner. Second, these programs have the unintended social consequenses of creating students who are less likely to experience empathy with their peers, more likely to show evidence of stress-induced hyperactivity, and more like to engage in delinquent acts.

The evidence is compelling: play promotes learning, and guided play is a powerful teaching tool.

Other books to read:
School Starts at Home by Cheri Fuller - simple ways to make learning fun


  1. I'm not sure what evidence is being cited by the author. You should carefully understand the findings of Project Follow Through which clearly, and unambiguously showed that careful direct instruction beats unstructured play & cognitive methods. See:

  2. The study you cite that indicates students taught with Direct Instruction are likely to have increased levels of deliquency was very mismanaged. It did not account for differences in student populations of a typical DI classroom (special ed/needs students) with the control group (in a core classroom).