Updated: Aug 23, 2019
The Lego foundation has recently published a study reviewing evidence in favor of learning through play, and explaining how play can "develop creative, engaged, lifelong learners who thrive in a 21st century world". There is no doubt that play can feed a child's imagination and help them process information, whether of general or educational content.
There is also no doubt that today's world is "interconnected" and has a very dynamic nature, with new technological advances popping every day and changing the way we do things. This means, children, just like adults, need to acquire effective learning skills to keep up with these challenges. Learning in today's world is not about how much you already know, but rather your willingness and ability to learn and adapt. Teaching our kids how to become avid learners can be the best gift we pass on to them. This is why the modern approach to learning is also moving from simply focusing on "teaching" to becoming holistic, acknowledging the need to connect learning to life, as a state of constant work and development.
Babies start learning from the womb. They get to know their mother's voice and the familiar noises in their environment. After they are born, every minute is a new learning experience, when they study your face, or reach out for a toy, or imitate sounds. Exploring and experiencing the world is how humans are designed to learn by nature. Moreover, humans are designed to learn through play, such as enjoying reading a book, visiting the theatre, attending a stand-up comedy show, and even flirting. Play beings about happiness and fulfillment and should not be perceived as guilty pleasures, or be limited to competitive play.
As Dr. Stuart Brown, the founder of "The National Institute for Play", suggests, play cultivates human relationships and can even improve intimacy. The lack of play can be even be a factor that predicts criminal behavior. Dr. Brown has spent his life interviewing thousands of individuals and documenting their "play profile". His findings point out to the crucial role of play for those who are successful, in comparison to those who lack it. Dr. Brown has even studied "inter-species" play (for example play between a polar bear and a dog); and along with other scientists agrees that play in the absence of danger is more likely to enhance their survival skills when there is real danger. You can find out more about his studies by reading his book "Play".
Putting a lot constraints on play can be counter-productive, and it is important to consider the child's interests and preferences. A healthy balance, according to the Lego Foundation, would include a combination of child-led free play, adult guided play, adult designed games, and directly controlled activities.
Furthermore, there are certain characteristics for play which help achieve the purpose of learning. The activity or play has to be "joyful" with some elements of surprise or challenge. For example, try to picture the way a baby reacts to the "Peekaboo" game. Play also has to be "actively engaging", in terms of the mind and senses, like a when a child is totally focused on putting together a puzzle. In addition, it has to be "meaningful", allowing the exploration of new things and making the new information relevant to what was previously learnt. Play also has to be "iterative", allowing the mind to examine different possibilities and outcomes, and triggering an urge to know more. Consider how a child tries many ways of putting blocks together and how they learn by trial and error. Finally, play has to be "socially interactive", building and strengthening relationships with others.
Note that not all characteristics may be present in one kind of activity or play, however, as the child progresses through this type of play, they would be able to have an encompassing experience. The aim is to target emotional, cognitive, social, physical, and creative skills for a holistic approach.
A final thought is perhaps as parents and carers to rethink our approaches. Are we paying enough attention to play? Are we allowing the child to experience the world and learn about it, without enforcing our own dogmas and structures? Are we preparing the child for the new dynamic and interchanging world we are living in? Personally, I've always believed a child's academic performance should not be labeled or marked, and instead, as adults, we need to check if we have provided them with enough opportunities and learning skills. What are your thoughts on learning through play? Please comment below.
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