The Play’s The Thing

9 December 2013 3,218 views No Comment

Anyone who has ever watched kids play knows it can be serious business. “I’ll be the mommy, you be the dog.” “No, the mommy has to have a baby, not a dog. Besides, I’m a girl – I have to be the mommy.” There are always rules to follow, mistakes to be made, and do-overs to be held. Kind of like life, but with unlimited chances (at least, until the crying starts and someone storms off slamming doors). Games are a great opportunity to role play and learn about different situations – but it only gets you so far.

Just this week someone mentioned how “natural” play is – all animals engage in play, and learn important adult skills through games of trial and error. However, as humans, most of us aspire to be more successful than animals, at least to have more interesting career choices and a nicer car. What differentiates how humans play from the way animals play? Clearly, informal playing can only teach so much – otherwise, there would be no elementary education system and my kids wouldn’t have as much to complain about. Kids do need guidance and input from those who know more – whether it’s an older neighbor who can explain the rules of a game you’ve never played before, to a teacher who can demonstrate knowledge you’d never find on your own.

The real question is why play has to stop when formal schooling begins – perhaps the challenge for educators is to blend their own experiences and knowledge with children’s natural ability to learn, creating a environment where sophisticated learning can arise from a playful environment where trial and error and mistakes are not only accepted, but encouraged. I’ve had adult students who cringed at the phrase “Why don’t you try it and see?” 🙂 This comes from a lifetime of not being encouraged to play at school.

However, educators should be careful of using play simply as a distraction from the boredom of learning – learning should be an integral part of playing, rather than a reinforcement of the idea that learning is boring (ie “class is over – recess time! Yay!!”). Play can highlight how exciting learning can be, when it is done for a purpose and in a way that engages the learner’s interest. (“Do we HAVE to take a break now, or can we keep working on our projects?”)

One of the balancing acts we have to do when trying to make learning fun is remembering that it’s not about pandering to kids who might not feel like learning, or be in the mood for school, or just not have the patience to do the work. The game or entertainment aspect should be contributing to the learning in some way (either through creating engagement, or illustrating a situation where the learning will be relevant) but that not every kid will enjoy  learning every subject. There are certain things they will have to learn anyway.

I do believe that attention, and the ability to do something you may not be in the mood for are skills that can and should be learned in childhood – as adults, we may not be in the mood to get up for that crying child at 3 am no matter how much we love them, but it is a part of life. It’s OK to show kids that everything comes with pros and cons, and the cons are a part of life but that’s not a reason to give up. It’s hard to teach, because it’s an understanding that comes with time and maturity, but I do think it’s one of the things elementary teachers should be stressing where possible in class. And yet, not by turning classtime into torture, or “do it because I said so.”

That’s the balance. Use entertainment where appropriate, but don’t turn school into an expectation of being entertained on demand.

Elisa teaches online professional development courses for teachers at
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