Time for serious research on play

Jon Sutton reports from the launch of the Play in Education Development and Learning (PEDaL) Centre at the University of Cambridge.

Launching the Play in Education Development and Learning (PEDaL) Centre at the University of Cambridge, Dr David Whitebread issued a rallying cry: ‘It’s an important time for serious research on play.… We need creative, problem solving, deep thinking adults, yet in modern, Westernised, urban environments the opportunities for play are under threat.’ 

The centre is funded by the LEGO Foundation, and Dr Whitebread said that this seminar celebrated ‘a developed relationship with a company that believes in doing the best they can for children’. LEGO Foundation CEO Hanne Rasmussen talked of ‘building a future where learning through play empowers children to become creative, engaged, lifelong learners.’ She pointed out that children have a natural ‘hands on, minds on approach to learning – they are our role models.’

To convince the policy makers of this approach, in an era where academic learning and competitive testing are the watchwords, psychologists need evidence. And despite evolutionary, anthropological, neuroscientific and developmental evidence regarding the importance of play, there are still huge gaps. In particular, we don’t know how play has its positive effects: there is not enough research taking a longitudinal approach and seeking causal links. PEDaL will build and share evidence to show value, identify and support programmes that demonstrate results, and look to open minds.

Joining by video link, Professor Kathy Hirsh-Pasek delivered an impassioned plea for schools to stop ‘shoving content into children’s minds’. She advocates the ‘six C’s’, with content alongside collaboration, communication, critical thinking, creative innovation and above all confidence – ‘the confidence to build that one block higher and watch it crash down, because even failure has lessons for how to have greater success’. It was stirring stuff (although I do hope she had her tongue in cheek when she described ‘playful learning’ as ‘what we might call plearning’).

The audience were then treated to a film of this approach in action, with Bar Hill Community Primary School improving writing skills through playful story making (in research by Whitebread and Marisol Basilio). Children were encouraged to build a LEGO model and use it to ‘storyboard’, moving things around to get ideas for their story. One teacher admitted she initially found it a nightmare, and Whitebread admitted the transition – from ‘fountain of knowledge’ to ‘co-player’ – can be hard.

The LEGO Foundation, a long time funder of psychological research, clearly see the value of their product – Andrew Bollington, Global Head of Research and Learning at the LEGO Foundation, said ‘with a jigsaw puzzle, there is one solution, with three eight-stud bits of LEGO there are more than a thousand’. But it’s not just about the brick. Bollington clearly relishes partnering with bright academic minds on varied projects, and he concluded that it’s about ‘taking this knowledge and actually making a difference with it in the world’. He has been in township schools in South Africa, where there has been a huge investment in early years learning. But, Bollington said, ‘this just means the worst of primary education a year earlier. You meet these children… the ability to see anything in their eyes has disappeared. If they are learning anything it’s that there’s one right answer to the question their teacher asks them. It’s hard hitting realities out there.’

In a rapidly changing world, where what you learned yesterday is not necessarily relevant tomorrow but the ability to find solutions is crucial, could playful learning be the answer?

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