“Play is the highest form of research” (Albert Einstein)
I find myself increasingly interested and engaged in the changing landscape of education to one that intentionally considers the context of the 21st century. Much of the research — and many current trends influencing educators — relates to the need and desire to enhance problem solving, social capability, and reducing traditional industrial approaches to teaching and learning. Educators are beginning to consider what is important for learners, how to motivate and engage them, reduce the “dropout” rate, and position learners to best meet the education and societal challenges of the future.
We know young children are expert learners. They are hard wired to do this. Recent advances in brain development research showcase the ways in which this takes place. It is particularly vigorous in the first 3-5 years. Studies have shown that the application of divergent or creative thinking patterns sits at 98 percent for those under 5 years. But, evidence clearly shows the decline of this throughout childhood with a massive reduction in creative thinking processes by the time they leave school.
In western society, the broad dialogue in relation to learning for very young child is that ‘children learn through play’. But, how well can we articulate this in action? I suggest that deeper insight into how learning takes place through play is at the heart of progressing the education system, and engaging learners with motivation and enthusiasm.
The development from infancy to childhood
So, what does learning through play mean and look like through the development of a child?
Through infancy, learning begins with the experience of relationships. Usually, first relationships take place within the family context, and ideally nurture the infant’s wellbeing, physically and emotionally, supporting the development of mana, or a self-concept of their worth, and value in the world. The consistency of the relationships around them, and the responsiveness of the adults and world in which they participate, creates a platform for a sense of belonging to develop. This is coupled with exploration through the senses — looking, touching, tasting, listening, and smelling — allowing them to investigate the properties of objects in the world.
Moving into toddlerhood, learning and development progressively extends to more deliberate and sophisticated movement, and mastering the body. Toddlers also begin to increase their engagement in the world through enhanced communication and the development of language. During toddlerhood, their identity formation moves to learning about their personal agency and the contribution they can make to the world around them. This is often discussed as, developing autonomy, and is evident in the increasing desire to do things for themselves, have things to themselves, and expressing their emotions — sometimes in expulsive and profound ways.
Maturing into early childhood brings further learning and development. This makes visible a more consolidated physical control, progressively developing emotional control and increasingly rational thinking. This development allows for the further complexity of children’s working theories (Davis, K. & Peters, S. 2011), i.e., ideas about how people, place, and things work. Through their play young children explore materials, resources, and equipment. They experiment with varying approaches to the world in their actions, interactions, and relationships, and they engage in the cultural practices, values, and behaviours that surround them.
Through each phase play is the tool for learning
Throughout each of the developmental phases (infancy, toddlerhood, and early childhood), play is the tool for learning, and provides the context for trial and error. It enables us to practice and master physical skill, consolidate language, confirm intellectual understandings and to increasingly manage the complexity of social and emotional ‘humanness’. As the very young engage in the experience of play, they learn what gets approval, thus coming to grips with the cultural values of their context, and grounding a sense of themselves as part of a wider cultural context and the world.
When children have the opportunity to play at length, and be involved with others in investigating possibilities and developing hypotheses, they try things out. They have little fear of failure, and through on-going and recurring experiences, they secure brain synapses that form the framework of their learned knowledge. Over time, their competence increases, and with this they develop confidence in their capability. Play allows children to be relaxed and work creatively, revisit experiences, solve problems, engage with others, and discover an endlessly new world.
Considerations about play in education
I notice with great interest some of the contemporary approaches to teaching pedagogy: the maker movement, inquiry teaching and learning, design thinking, and the like. Many of these approaches look suspiciously like play in action, and I feel excited by the prospect of play being the next big learning trend in education.
I wonder, firstly, if the tricky bit sits in the expectation that teachers make teaching and learning look systematic, linear, tidy, and therefore measurable? Secondly, I wonder if it is difficult to move away from the traditional view of the teacher as ‘sage’ or the holder of knowledge and wisdom? Part of what makes play such a successful tool for learning is that it requires a freedom. Play is an activity that is, in itself, full of purpose and yet purposeless. For some, the perception might be that play is seen as something you do when you are having fun or don’t have something ‘better’ to do, and yet, at the same time it brings about the most rapid and profound development and learning visible in our lifetimes.
I wonder if play might be the answer to our educational dilemmas about how to motivate enthusiastic participation in education? Maybe, play is the tool that allows learners the freedom to explore and recognise their developing capability? Could play be the tool that enables learners to move from a mindset that says ‘I can’t do that’ to ‘I can’t do that yet’? Perhaps teaching practices would benefit from adding freedom and encouraging a ‘give it a go spaghettio’ approach. Is the practice of asking children for the correct answer just too passé? Would we find it more satisfying and learning-focused to ask for their best idea and then set about engaging in deep play to work out if the idea brings the outcome they seek?
Play — the age-old foundation for learning — the way of the future
There are many educationists and academics all over the world advocating the shift in our thinking about education, and how it takes place. There are numerous think tanks, organisations, and companies struggling to bring forward new ways of dealing with the issues faced by society today. We know that the way we educate right now will have unimaginable impact on the experiences of our children and their children. My hypothesis is that ‘play’ is not a dirty word, and that play does not get in the way of learning. I suggest play is the age-old foundation to learning, it's the joy of learning, it’s the freedom to create, and the innately human activity that brings about capability, satisfaction, success, and togetherness.
I encourage every teacher to bring back playtime everyday.
- Powerful play: Continuity and inquiry for children starting school — Keryn Davis
- Playing to learn — Stephen Lowe