The importance of play and learn

Fidget spinners are the remarkable craze of 2017. We will remember the scene as bedazzled spinners whir in kids’ hands as incredulous teachers look on in amazement. While there is growing evidence that fidget spinners, marketed as a remedy for attention deficit disorder, are not actually effective, they point out an important truth about kids and learning. Kids are active, and there is a real importance to integrating movement and play into the learning process. Over the past two decades, the rise of high stakes testing and strict academic standards coincided with the reprioritization of kinesthetic activities like physical education, recess, arts and crafts, and other activities deemed not productive toward passing a standardized test. The New York Times documented this shift when they reported that, for primary school students, “Increasingly [playful learning] activities are being abandoned for the teacher-led didactic instruction typically used in the higher grades.” Ironically, this drastic juxtaposition in conjunction with changing academic outcomes rekindled the debate over academic methodology and the best practices for teaching kids new skills. In this debate, it’s becoming overtly obvious that play is an integral component of learning.

Play is one of those activities that we recognize when we are doing it, and we know it when we see it, but it can be difficult to adequately define. Therefore, when discussing play in learning, it’s helpful to identify exactly what that means. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) defines playful learning as “fun, voluntary, and intrinsically motivated; it involves active engagement and often incorporates make-believe.” Dr. David Whitebread with the University of Cambridge completed an exhaustive report on the importance of play, and he helpfully identifies five general types of play that illustrate the concept: physical play, play with others, symbolic play, socio-dramatic play, and games with rules. On these categories, Whitebread notes that “Although each type of play has a main developmental function or focus, arguably all of them support aspects of physical, intellectual, and socio-emotional growth.” Other scholars are contributing their own support for playful learning. Shayna Cook and Abbie Lieberman, researchers with the NAEYC believe that “Guided play helps children learn to solve problems, persist through challenges, build vocabulary skills, and gain background knowledge in many content areas.” Moreover, Dr. Rachel White in “The Power of Play” writes, “Researchers and educators know that these playful activities benefit the development of the whole child across social, cognitive, physical, and emotional domains.” There is a near unanimous consensus that play benefits learners, and it’s beginning its resurgence back into the curriculum.

Play in learning is not an infinite recess. Rather it is an intentional teaching strategy that harnesses kids’ intrinsic motivations to teach vital skills that are both practical and a prerequisite for more advanced learning later on. For example, school curriculums are increasingly adopting computer programming at the primary grade levels, and the advanced critical thinking and sequencing skills necessary to code a new app can be developed through play using tools like Google Creative Labs’ project blocks that teach students the fundamentals of coding while they play with blocks. Additionally, language skills can be developed while kids play and interact with one another. Moreover, synthesizing ideas, an essential component of literacy, is enacted as kids engage in pretend play because they are actively synthesizing the roles that they are inhabiting. These free play structures increase engagement because, regardless of their base skill set, all kids can participate, and it develops essential language skills that will determine kids’ ability to read.

Playful learning addresses more than just the hard skills that comprise the curriculum. Educators are noticing an alarming trend in secondary education in which students arrive in the classroom emotionally unable to learn. Although the systems are in place to foster learning, students are simply unable to receive new information. While this is a nuanced issue, for future students, the remedy may be more playful learning in the primary grades. A Harvard University study found that playful learning not only instructs academic skills but it also teaches necessary soft skills including executive function, emotional regulation, goal setting, and fairness. Therefore, participating in games within the confines of the rules or navigating social situations on the playground constitute academic exercises that develop functional skills that enable students to excel in more traditional academic activities. In other words, kids benefit from playful learning by acquiring necessary hard and soft skills that define successful learning and successful living.

There is no doubt that integrating play into the curriculum is a necessary component of effectively educating and equipping kids for their highest levels of achievement. Educators, parents, and even students are catching on to this trend, and it seems likely to only proliferate with time. There are an abundance of resources that offer ideas and suggestions for integrating playful learning into the classroom. Interested parties can buy books, attend conferences, or read blogs, and each will provide a wealth of information about the subject. Tinkerbots, a German company committed to integrating play in learning, offers a comprehensive solution to the myriad possibles for integrating play into the curriculum. The Powerbrain by Tinkerbots is an adaptable micro controller that kids can build upon to develop a seemingly endless array of devices. Using attachable cubies, axles, and wheels, kids can develop everything from marching robots to moveable dinosaurs. This approach allows kids to exercise their creative thinking, logical sequencing, and technical integration skills while they have fun building. It’s not devious, but it certainly feels like sneaking essential skills instruction into activities that kids are already doing voluntarily. This is the fundamental quality of playful learning, and effective educators and mindful parents will harness the power of play to promote learning. We only get one chance to educate and prepare a generation. Rather than rushing them to the lecture hall, let them play a little longer. It makes all the difference.

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