Let’s talk about play. What is play anyway? Well, as a verb, it’s engaging in something purely for recreational purpose. As a noun, it stands for active engagement for enjoyment and recreation, and quite closely associated with children, and rightly so. I mean, do you know of a child who doesn’t play? I don’t. And guess what, when I see a child playing, I am more than tempted to join in (inner child in me, I guess?)
Given that play doesn’t have any purpose other than the enjoyment of the act itself, what role could it have on learning? Before dwelling deeper on this topic, let’s agree on what learning is, at least in the context of this article. Among the various ways we can define learning, the one I am particularly in agreement with is this:
“To acquire, or attempt to acquire knowledge or an ability to do something”.
I guess the reason I like this definition is that it not only covers the act, but also the intent, which is to apply one’s knowledge obtained through learning.
Why is this definition relevant, and how is it connected to play? We will come back to it in a minute. But before that, let’s dig a bit deeper into play, shall we? So what do children enjoy in play? When I was a child (even now as a 31 year old), I enjoyed these aspects:
- Competition: The challenge to stretch my abilities to accomplish something, and obtain a social validation for it
- Collaboration: The ability to play together with my peers to get something done as a team
- Agency: No one told me what to do. Win or otherwise, I chose my destiny
I’m sure there may be other factors I have enjoyed, but these are the ones that come to the top of my mind, and I hope you are able to identify with some of those too.
This is when it gets interesting: these aspects are very much part of learning too. Every child I know wants to be the best version of himself/herself (competition/identity), they love working with groups, especially when not constantly supervised by adults (collaboration), and they’d much rather know their strengths and weaknesses to make an effort accordingly (Agency). In fact, the AFL framework is based on the premise of the child’s agency in learning.
When play and learning seem so similar to each other, surely, our children must be playing a lot more in the classroom, aye? Well, it may not be that straight forward. Have you heard of “Active learning”? It’s a term coined in the Scottish curriculum for excellence. It stands for “Spontaneous and planned purposeful play” – essentially, the teacher scaffolding playful sessions facilitating learning.
While it may seem like a great idea, the reality is more complicated than that. Some of the factors that come into play are:
- High student to teacher ratio
- Behavioural issues in the classroom
- Time pressure on target outcomes
If you want to know more, here’s an excellent research on this topic done in Scotland.
Where I teach, our play sessions are quite successful, not least because we facilitate our sessions by:
- Telling our children what to expect during the session
- Telling them what I expect from them
- Ensuring every child gets something at the end of the session
What play sessions have you tried? And what worked and what didn’t? Please let me know through the comments here or email me; I’d love to know!