Play is Not a Four-Letter Word

What do you think of when you hear play? If a child were to tell you that they “played” at school, what would you think?

How do our beliefs about play affect our educational system and the choices we make as educators about how we deliver the curriculum? How does that evolve over time?

Play is common and expected in Kindergarten. In Ontario, our full day kindergarten model emphasizes learning through play.

A study in the US which sought to reintroduce play in early years settings examined what can happen when test scores and scripted curriculum overtake the priority of play. The results aren’t very surprising. We know that young children need to play. But is this exclusive to kindergarten?

In grade one, play begins to disappear. Whether or not grade one students play outside of school time is related to their success in school. Which begs the question – should it disappear from school? If play is integral to our students’ success, how should that shape our school structures?

Research on play beyond the early years is limited and needs to be further explored.

Play doesn’t and shouldn’t stop after the beginning of formal education. These children in grades five and six reported the benefits of play and the barriers to play – mostly that the schedule and structure of school and after school activities left little time for unstructured play. These researchers advocate that teachers should acknowledge play as a tool for learning.

And what about outcomes? Is play effective in helping our students be successful in literacy and numeracy? This study which followed students for 7 years, found that students in primary play-based classrooms matched the scores of those in traditional programs. I find it interesting to note that their scores were initially lower, but caught up over the long term. There’s more to study there in regards to developmental readiness for learning and the recognition that pathways to learning can be varied and not all on the same schedule.

But what do scores not tell us? What other factors should we consider? If scores are a non-issue (similar in play-based and traditional settings), then what about mental health? Social relationships? Attitudes towards school and learning? Creativity? Behaviour? Things not easily measured on a test but based on what else we know about play, may likely be improved in a play-based setting.

Some researchers argue that playfulness is a lifelong attribute that should not be ignored if we want to improve well-being and indeed, overall success.

“…Humans are, after all, Homo ludens, an inherently playful species. The cultural historian Johan Huizinga (1955) coined this phrase after observing that play constitutes the primary formative element in human culture. That humans remain playful through the life-span, thereby creating elaborate cultures, ingenious inventions, and exquisite artistic expressions, might indicate that playfulness is not the special distinction of a lucky few but every human’s birthright.”

So what does that look like in grades beyond the early years? I don’t have all the definitive answers but I believe play should involve free choice, curiosity, hands-on exploration of materials, social interaction and questions – lots of questions. Teachers can guide play through suggesting activities, asking prompting questions, answering student questions and finding teachable moments – when the right piece of new information is timely and relevant because it is given context through play. I use play because I want my students to be active, not passive.

I facilitate play through careful choices of objects to provide that I believe will naturally guide my student towards the curriculum. Studying pulleys & gears? Lego with lots of pulley & gear pieces. Working on improving spatial sense? Jigsaw puzzles and Rubik’s cubes. Need practice with mental strategies for addition and subtraction? Monopoly lets us practice that & manipulating money. Light & sound? LEDs, speakers, resistors, batteries, and other components to play with and manipulate circuits that explore the properties of light and sound – not to mention photography, videography and audio composing. 3D geometry? Structures? Following plans/instructions? Let’s build stuff (from Ikea furniture to giant K’nex roller coasters… where we can integrate learning about physics, too). I don’t think that every required skill can be taught through play, but a large number of them can.

I continue to be impressed by the collaboration, problem-solving, critical thinking and creative aspects of play – those intangible things we know are a part of modern learning but aren’t as explicit in curriculum and aren’t as easy to measure.

I am also finding more and more that play is a springboard for purposeful “work” (in the more traditional sense, for lack of a better term). Students are researching & reading, writing out plans, sketching & measuring diagrams, drafting & revising. I am cognizant that I don’t want to dampen the spirit of play by forcing associated “work” structures but I certainly recognize that it happens frequently. I think as educators we often try to control learning situations – because we’re organized and thoughtful – but sometimes it’s better to “let go” and allow students to own it. This might mean it fails but it might also mean it’s more powerful and impactful than we could have imagined.

I think all play has value. But I don’t think *all* play has equal educational value – so the question becomes one of balance. How might we identify and facilitate the types of play that our students need the most? Are there types of play we should not include at school? How might we best capture and articulate the learning inherent in play? How might we best make students aware of the learning happening in their play (or do we need to)?

How might we become more playful in education, at all ages?

We don’t want our students to grow up in the exact same world we have today, so how do we make something new out of what we already have? I think play has a role.




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