Playful Learning

John Martin's picture

A wonderful Op-Ed in today's New York Times on the role of play in the learning process. Though specifically referring to the development cycle of students under the age of 12, the post makes a number of great points that can be applicable for learners of all ages. Here are a few points.

Play n' Learn

1. Desired outcomes sometimes evolve from a practice that looks different from the desired outcomes:

"In order to design a curriculum that teaches what truly matters, educators should remember a basic precept of modern developmental science: developmental precursors don’t always resemble the skill to which they are leading. For example, saying the alphabet does not particularly help children learn to read. But having extended and complex conversations during toddlerhood does. Simply put, what children need to do in elementary school is not to cram for high school or college, but to develop ways of thinking and behaving that will lead to valuable knowledge and skills later on."

2. Content must be personally meaningful to the learner (what some call Authentic Learning), and

3. Understanding can be enhanced by communicating (and designing learner-created content):

"Children would also spend an hour a day writing things that have actual meaning to them — stories, newspaper articles, captions for cartoons, letters to one another. People write best when they use writing to think and to communicate, rather than to get a good grade.

In our theoretical classroom, children would also spend a short period of time each day practicing computation — adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing. Once children are proficient in those basics they would be free to turn to other activities that are equally essential for math and science: devising original experiments, observing the natural world and counting things, whether they be words, events or people. These are all activities children naturally love, if given a chance to do them in a genuine way.

What they shouldn’t do is spend tedious hours learning isolated mathematical formulas or memorizing sheets of science facts that are unlikely to matter much in the long run. Scientists know that children learn best by putting experiences together in new ways. They construct knowledge; they don’t swallow it."

4. Play is an important part of learning:

"During the school day, there should be extended time for play. Research has shown unequivocally that children learn best when they are interested in the material or activity they are learning. Play — from building contraptions to enacting stories to inventing games — can allow children to satisfy their curiosity about the things that interest them in their own way. It can also help them acquire higher-order thinking skills, like generating testable hypotheses, imagining situations from someone else’s perspective and thinking of alternate solutions."

Of course, none of this is to say that learning should not also be challenging. Some of the best play is play that pushes us to stretch the limits of our understanding.

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