I recently attended a workshop with 50 other primary (and one secondary) educators from across Cambridge to learn more about the positive impact and critical role that “play” has on not just children, but people of all ages. As a school, we have made an educated choice to introduce play into parts of our day for our junior classes (and extending into some other classes also) - and I am not talking about break times.
As a society, “play” conjures up a very different picture than how educators now understand "play." When most people say to children “go and play” we are often saying “go and burn time before dinner” or “go and do something to give me a break,” or “go and have a rest from the hard task you have been doing” etc. None of these things are bad - it just does not accurately describe the value of play for children.
When children play, there is sophisticated high-level neurological learning taking place. Children are learning to create, to problem solve, to negotiate, to compromise, to apply past learning to new situations, to craft words for purpose to suit the audience, to adapt, control impulses, initiate solutions to problems they have identified, to imagine, to learn new skills relevant to the task they are trying to solve. It encourages curiosity, discovery, inquiry, uniqueness. It helps children to learn what they are passionate about, about the sort of person they are and how to interact with others in situations where there are no set parameters. Who knew that "play" was so powerful!
One of the problems with the word "play" is that despite it being used so frequently, coming up with a nice succinct one-line definition is difficult because of the individualness of how each person plays. This also makes measuring the impact of play so difficult in a society and education system that is infatuated with “Taylorism” and that for anything to have value it has to be able to be measured. Measuring the cognitive and creative benefits play is having on children is nigh on impossible to measure.
Despite this complexity, play does have some common characteristics.
Among the most essential characteristics of play is that the activity they become involved with may not have established rules - the people involved in the play set the rules and they change them as they go and as the play evolves (which often drives adults mad because we like to have set rules which everyone follows!). This is what separates play from any involvement in adult organised sport, or a traditional game outside.
Another characteristic of play is that it is self-chosen, self-directed and allows children to quit at any time. The freedom to quit the play or change it is critical in the development of impulse control, to be able to concede if the task gets too tricky, or if someone tries to change the rules. All too often as adults we interfere in the play and try to organise the rules or manage disputes rather than allow children to do their play work and solve these things themselves. Of course, there are times when adults need to become involved, but sometimes children use adults as their tool to resolve a dispute or problem, rather than have to develop other skill sets to solve it themselves!
Play is process focused rather than product driven. Children do not have to have something to show for how they have spent their time, nor is what they have done or how they have spent their time going to be measured or assessed. As soon as there is measurement or judgement, the creative tangents that allow players to go in wonderful new directions are extinguished because failure becomes an option. Think about the frustrations that children encounter when they are following a set lego model as opposed to trying to find a solution to a Lego car they are building from their imagination. To be clear, I am not suggesting that there is no place for having a finished product that is assessed against some set criteria. If our society worked that way, nothing would get done! Who would hire a contractor who did not complete the task that needed to be done to an agreed on standard!? The important thing to keep front of mind is that in play the process, working through challenges, resolving frustrations, the personal wins, the skills learnt is what is of value.
To learn more about the characteristics of play, this is an interesting blog post from one of the most respected experts in the child development space - www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/freedom-learn/201610/the-culture-childhood-we-ve-almost-destroyed-it
So what does all this mean?
In addition to continuing to have targeted and specialised reading, writing, math groups etc. that focus on targeting the next step learning needs of each learner, we need to build in and value more the educational advantages that come from opportunities that allow children to “play”. These opportunities should be available not just during break times, during the weekend and after school once the “real work” is done - but as part of a well rounded, balanced education system that allows children to find and develop their hidden potential as we partner with them to co-author their future.
(I also wonder about the busy lives our children have outside of school and how there is less opportunity to play with friends or explore the paths of their imagination. Imagine setting homework where children are asked just to play! - But those are wonderings for another day!)
As I write this, I am at school on a Sunday morning looking out the window and watching different groups of children who have come down to school to play. Some have formed games with new friends - they have set up some rules and are having a great time, some are on the swings and talking away about who knows what, some have found some sticks and are doing something with them as they run around, and others are challenging themselves to do new things on the playground. Knowing the value of what they are doing, the benefits it is bringing them socially, emotionally, developmentally, and cognitively, it is time to stop writing, and go home and play with my kids!
Many great adventures start with the vacuum of time!