It isn't one or the other: play supports learning

I had the opportunity to see a wonderful panel on play. It was part of the business meeting of AERA 2012 Cultural Historical. If more business meetings were more often like this one, we would probably look forward to them. The room was filled with serious players. Yes, players: educators who advocate and practice play in the classroom, researchers who examine the characterization of play over time and those who understand importance of play to human development and learning- all of whom were very capable of play. 

The panel raised significant issues about play. I was particularly moved by the story of the loss of play for our children. Over the past 15 years one of the increasingly documented and studied aspects of human development is play. Some easily accessible examples include The Promise of Play produced by Stuart Brown at the National Institute for Play, and NPR’s “Creative play makes for kids in control”. Yet, we are seeing an increasing loss of play in schools, and I don’t mean middle or high schools. It is pre-school and kindergarten where we are stripping children of their right to play, to be children. I feel for parents who are caught in the conundrum of “push for success” or “let them play”. Thankfully, research supports play. 

Play supports the emotional and cognitive development of children. Resources from the Alliance for Childhood highlight the myth that reading by age 5 or early curricula for children under the age of 7 is good for our children. In fact, studies indicate that play-based or experiential learning results in equivalent or better education and well being for the kids. This research includes the 1970’s comparison of 50 play-based classes with 50 curricula-based classes in Germany (Darling-Hammond and Snyder, 1992), and comparison of the reading skills of 10 year olds who did or did not learn to read by age 5 (Suggate,2009). The findings? Children who play in kindergarten excelled over others in reading, mathematics, creativity, and intelligence, and were better able to handle social ambiguity, interactions and complexity. Children who read by age 5 were no better at reading as 10 year olds than those who learned later. 

So, why do we as researchers in the STEM fields care about childhood play? I think our inability to take seriously how important play is to our human development gets in the way of our doing better science.  As a scientist I have enjoyed the playful exploration of ideas, positing of possibilities and re-ordering of facts in contemplation or conversation with colleagues in their work. The love of our cells, networks, algorithms, “problems” is I believe the expression of rigorous, imaginative play. Creating improvscience has served many purposes. The first is an opportunity to support our adult development as scientists through play. A second is to educate ourselves on the significance of play in human development throughout our lives.  It seems if we are willing as a society to strip our children of opportunities to play, it is likely hard to support play for adults. And yet, the research and practice shows that play is good for our overall well being. We can create work environments, not unlike Google or Zappo, for serious play. Environments in which our rigorous scientific investigations re-imagine, re-examine, re-cast what is known into new possibilities. This is very serious play.  And as we are learning, play is serious business.


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A very impressive article. Well prepared. Very motivating!! Set off on to way