‘Play’ is not a four-letter word

Jon Sutton reports from the 2014 Idea Conference in Billund, Denmark.

There is a serious issue with the way our learning environments are fostering empathy, creativity and social cognition. We need to redefine play and reimagine learning: ‘play’ has a stigma that is robbing our children of an opportunity, to experience, to experiment, to explore.

That was the message from Randa Grob-Zakhary, Chief Executive Officer of the LEGO Foundation, launching this two-day event. The Foundation, endowed by LEGO’s founding family, is committed to ‘inspire the world to recognise, appreciate and take action to support the transformative role of play in learning’. They do this through philanthropic activity and through the funding and dissemination of academic research in the field.

After a pop science quiz on how the mind learns, I enjoyed a breakout session with Professor Peter Gray (Department of Psychology, Boston College) on ‘freeing the play instinct’. Gray referred to evidence suggesting that children’s sense of control over their lives has continuously decreased over the past 35 years, before going on to attempt a causal link between this and declining opportunities to play. The first half of the 20th century, Gray said, was the golden age of play, as child labour laws freed the young from the workplace. Beyond 1955 or so, adults began to take over children’s non-labour activities and hobbies were replaced by classes. ‘When I talk about what my childhood was like,’ said Gray, ‘young parents are shocked. When I was five, as long as I had a responsible six-year-old with me I was free to roam.’ Play is how children learn to solve their own problems, take control of their lives, regulate their emotions and get along with peers, and Gray argues that we need to create the ‘optimal context for self-education’ – learning how to learn rather than a formal education based on storing facts and assessment. He points to a number of curriculum-free, ‘democratic schools’ across Europe and suggests that these produce more rounded individuals, rather than the increasing levels of narcissism found in numerous academic studies. ‘Playmates can’t tolerate someone thinking they’re the centre of the universe’, Gray concluded. 

A second session led by Professor David Whitebread, a developmental cognitive psychologist at the University of Cambridge, asked how children become ‘self-regulating’ and why it is important. Self-regulated learners know what to do when they have a problem; enjoy solving problems; and know how their brain works. Achieving this ‘mind mastery’ – which Whitebread describes as a combination of skill, will and thrill – appears to predict a whole range of lifespan outcomes (such as high school grades, earnings, arrest history), better than measures of early literacy. Yet education policy retains its focus on the ends rather than the means. ‘The thing is’, says Whitebread, ‘it’s not difficult – I can train a group of teachers to support playful education in five or six weeks. It’s about making metacognitive and learning strategies explicit, and encouraging children to reflect upon and talk about their learning.’

After lunch, ‘Expert in Residence’ at the Harvard University Innovation Lab, Tony Wagner, delivered a clear and passionate call to educate young people to be ‘creators, not consumers’. ‘The world no longer cares how much our students know’, he said, ‘it’s about what you can do’. ‘Just dig in and go figure it out’ is the only job description you need, yet schools and workplaces are not set up to encouraged ‘disciplined play’ of their personnel. ‘Just imagine if our schools followed the Google rule – 20 per cent of your time given over to exploration, to be the architect of your own learning.’ Instead, Wagner argued, we penalise mistakes, leading to a fear of failure and subsequent risk aversion. ‘Fail early and fail often’, Wagner advises. ‘It’s about iteration – reflect on what you have done, and set new learning goals.’

These themes continued on the second day, with a conversation between psychologist Kathy Hirsh-Pasek (Director of the Infant Language Laboratory at Temple University) and Mitch Resnick (Director of the Lifelong Kindergarden Group, MIT). We can’t just open up the head of a child and pour in facts, in a world that is constantly changing: instead, the emphasis should be on projects, peers, passion and play. In his later talk, Jack Shonkoff (Director of the Centre on the Developing Child at Harvard University) agreed: Colleges need to consider what their ‘value added’ is, in an era of the Massive Open Online Course. It’s about coaching, not teaching.   

Putting their money where their mouth is, the LEGO Foundation launched the #play2learn Re-imagine Learning Challenge. This is open to individuals, organisations, and partnerships who are using play or playful approaches to enrich learning. The deadline is later this month – see www.changemakers.com/play2learn for more details. 

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