Play as a medium for learning

Some of the most astonishing photographs taken during the latest Israeli bombardment of Gaza were those of young children playing among the rubble and carnage left by the bombs.

It is almost as though the games they were playing were a shield against the horror and bloodshed that surrounded them. They had no power to stop the terror of the real world of adult conflict, so they were retreating to imaginary worlds where they were the ones who made the decisions – places of greater safety.

Play is, as far as we can tell, a near universal and innate human ability. And when children play they are using it as a medium of learning.

That is not, of course, the same as making a statement about the quality of the learning. Learning through play is not somehow sacred or privileged, but has limits the same as any other learning medium.

One of the confusions we make about play is how it is defined. For me, it falls into one of three categories:

1. Organised play or games, with established rules and codes of conduct: usually organised and run by adults. That is until the children develop the necessary skills and knowledge to run the games themselves.

2. Self-directed play: either one child playing alone or with other children. Play of this kind often involves an imaginary dimension. For example, two children playing chase pretend to be a zombie chasing Scooby-Doo.

3. Imaginary play for learning: This involves an adult, playing with a child, or children, but with a focus on curriculum learning. By curriculum I mean all aspects of the curriculum – social, emotion, and academic.

To evaluate the quality of the learning in each category we have to have a clear idea of what kind of learning we hoping to be developed.

Children aimlessly kicking a football about with an adult who makes no effort to develop their skills, are clearly learning very little.

Children running around in a play-ground playing Scooby-Doo are likely to be having fun and are probably learning some things about social interactions, mediation, and communication, but this learning is a by-product of their game, not its primary purpose.

The children in the class, however, who are learning with an adult, who is taking part in their play and giving it direction and purpose, are hopefully learning a lot. At least they are if the adult is doing their job.

Play as a medium for learning then, is not a simply a matter of letting kids do whatever like. It is organised and purposeful, with clear pedagogical aims.

One thing to stress is that play in the classroom, when directed towards learning, does not always have to have an adult directly involved. Adults often provide resources and set tasks that generate purposeful and focused play towards curriculum ends.

Further, it is not to say that the adults are the only ones doing the directing. Play is by nature collaborative and enjoyable. Once a child becomes bored of play, either because they do not feel they have a voice in how it is run or because it has become dull and boring, they will stop and (if they can) walk away.

Play, of the kind that is about learning, involves working together, sharing ideas, and being with other human beings. It requires communication, compromise, and understanding if it is to work effectively.

And it requires a repositioning of the adult as the one who makes all the decisions.

Of all the challenges facing using play as a medium for learning, this is the one that adults find the most difficult to reconcile.

For me, it is all about balance. Tip too far one-way and you lose control of the class, too tip far the other and the children lose interest.

Using imaginative play as a way of teaching the curriculum is not an easy option and there are many obstacles to doing it well. But, that does not mean it we shouldn’t try. Learning involves risk, if we are asking our students take risks and get things wrong, then we should be prepared to do the same.

If you are not convinced that play can be an effective medium for learning or you want conclusive empirical evidence it works before you are prepared to try, then this little blog is hardly likely to change your mind. But, if you are like me, and you think play is (as it seems to be) an innate and universal medium for human beings to make meaning of the world, and something children do even in the most terrible situations like Gaza, then why wouldn’t you try?





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