Cultivating and supporting learning through play
Through the advances of science, we are realising that learning is a highly natural process, invigorated by our interactions with other people through sensory-motor experiences. Research on the importance of sensory-motor experience for brain growth and development had blossomed in the past two decades. We can no longer limit the learning environment to “sitting still, being quiet, and memorising stuff”.
Learning, thought, creativity and intelligence are not processes of the brain alone, but of the whole body. Sensations, movements, emotions and brain integrative functions are grounded in the body. The notion that intellectual activity can somehow exist apart from our bodies is deeply rooted in our culture. This idea is also the basis of a lot of educational theory and practice that make learning harder and less successful than it could be.
Play is central to how children learn: the way they make sense of their world; the way they form and explore friendships; the way they shape and test intellectual, social, emotional, and ethical ideas. Research has proved beyond doubt the importance of play in child’s development. Yet little effort is made to put play at the centre of schooling.
Making room for playful learning in conventional schools can be difficult. Formidable tensions exist between playful learning and the way pedagogy is currently structured in most schools. Educators often differ in how they value playful learning practices and their understandings of the nature of play.
To those who view play as a central pathway for learning, resources such as time, space, and materials can seem in short supply. To those who see play as silly and off-task, encouraging playful learning can run counter to educational policies that emphasise efficient coverage of the curriculum.
At Walden’s Path, we believe that a pedagogy of play, a systematic approach to the practice of playful learning and teaching is needed to bridge these tensions.Creating and executing such a pedagogy requires a school culture where playfulness is celebrated, examined, made visible, and better understood as a powerful pathway of learning. Indeed, bringing play into a central role in a school entails creating a culture that values the core tenets of play: taking risks, making mistakes, exploring new ideas, and experiencing joy.
Play is typically considered a pleasurable, spontaneous, non-goal directed activity that can include anticipation, flow and surprise. Play is both objective and subjective, comprising qualities of observable behaviour as well as qualities of felt experience.
Foregrounding playful learning does not mean that all learning has to be playful, or that every moment of playfulness involves significant learning. What it does mean is that a close look at play and playfulness reveals numerous emotional, social and cognitive features that can powerfully abet learning in many, perhaps most, circumstances. Sometimes these features help to make learning feel playful; sometimes they simply help the learning to proceed in a more engaging and exploratory way, without feeling playful as such.
In playful learning, children try out ideas, test theories, experiment with symbol systems, explore social relations, take risks, and reimagine the world. Failure is an opportunity to try again. Vygotsky explains that “a child’s greatest achievements are possible in play, achievements that will tomorrow become her basic level of real action”. In playful learning, children are engaged, relaxed, and challenged—states of mind highly conducive to learning (LEGO Learning Institute, 2013). Children do not stop playing when they enter grade school. While the nature of the play changes as children grow into teenagers—there may be more complex games with rules, advanced physical activity like team sports, programming with computers, and jam sessions with instruments—the active engagement and meaning-making continues.
By fostering engagement and stimulating sense making, play allows learners to build domain-related skills, content knowledge, and creative thinking. When children play with blocks, draw, and engage in dramatic play, they count, classify, and create and examine patterns. Socio-dramatic play involves telling stories, using rich vocabulary and practising writing. Children who participate in play-oriented early childhood classrooms show long-term academic gains (Marcon, 2002; Lillard & Else-Quest, 2006; Weiland & Yoshikawa, 2013).
Studies by Harvard University team have shown that primary and middle years classrooms, demonstrate powerful links between play and the acquisition of academic skills, deepening content knowledge in the domains of mathematics, literacy, science, and information and computer technology (e.g., Cheng, 2011; Han, Moore, Vukelich, & Buell, 2010; Honeyford & Boyd, 2015; Kangas, 2010; Kennewell & Morgan, 2006).
When learning through play, children often engage with others and make sense of relationships. They learn to read cues, listen, and take another’s perspective— all key aspects to the development of empathy. They build friendships based on trust and experience the satisfaction of creating with others. As children enter primary school, peers take on increasing importance, and play’s contribution to social learning continues. Students learn to share ideas, express themselves, negotiate, and reach compromises. In play they learn to balance autonomy and interdependence. In short, they learn the skills and dispositions of collaboration.
As children develop from preschool to high school, playful learning contributes to emotional growth. In early childhood, a central task is learning to selfregulate—to defer gratification, control impulses, and direct one’s attention. In playful learning, children develop the motivation and capacity to follow rules and pay attention. Studies suggest a positive relationship between play and self-regulation. Self-regulation skills predict important outcomes such as peer acceptance and positive self-worth. Learning through play also contributes to children’s sense of agency –the capacity and wherewithal to influence, manipulate, and shape one’s world. This sense of agency enables children to recognise and act on opportunities for change and empowers them to make choices about their lives.
When children play, they are in charge; they set the agenda; they construct and deconstruct the rules. It is the child who determine how (and when) to conform when to deviate (or become deviant), and when to lead (or follow). In sum, playful learning engages children in exploring and making sense of the world, while developing self-regulation and agency.
Children’s physical health and well-being lay the groundwork for learning in other spheres, and play supports this development. At its core, much of play is physical, as children often choose to play with and through their bodies. In such play, a child develops strength, muscle control, coordination, reflexes, and gains a sense of her own body’s abilities and limits. Furthermore, play, whether climbing a tree or playing tag, is often about pushing limits and trying new things—activities that can motivate children to take these risks.
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