I love hearing new grandparents talk about their grandchildren. I have had many tell me what a different experience it is from having their own children and how much more they can enjoy the experience being able to slow down the pace and savor every milestone and moment in a different, more thoughtful way. They explain how in contrast to the busy pace of parenthood, how much they enjoy and appreciate watching their grandson or granddaughter just PLAY, explore and learn about the world. Watching young children play is truly a gift.
Albert Einstein once said Play is the highest form of research. Our children learn about their world through play. They get a sense of their own abilities, discover their likes and discern dislikes. They learn both fine and gross motor skills. Through play children imagine alternate universes, create imaginary friends and think the sky’s the limit. They encounter boundaries, push limitations, face fears, and build both confidence and relationships. Play truly is the research and work of childhood. There is much to discovered, experienced and learned while at play.
In Lifelong KIndergarten by Mitch Resnick, he says the following:
If we really want to support kids developing as creative thinkers, we have to focus on play, not as an activity, but as an attitude, a way of engaging with the world, always being ready to try new things, to experiment, to test the boundaries, to take risks. So if you really want to think about kids and learning and play, I think the most important question to ask is how can you help kids develop a playful attitude and a playful approach to everything that they do in the world.
He goes on to describe the work of Marina Bers, a professor from Tufts University, who came up with a powerful metaphor in regards to play, that being the difference between playgrounds and playpens. While they are both designed to support play, they encourage different types of play and ultimately different kinds of learning. A playpen is a more restrictive environment. When a child is in a playpen, they have a limited area to move in which means they have more restricted possibilities to explore. They have a more finite scope of opportunities. On the other hand, in a playground, children have much bigger opportunities to move about, to explore, to discover, to learn about their world and encounter others. When you watch kids on playgrounds you will often see them coming up with their own games, and inventing new possibilities. Playgrounds encourage creative thinking.
So if we want our students to be creative thinkers, how do we ensure our classrooms and schools offer creative opportunities as “playgrounds”?
Don’t get me wrong. There are a time and place for “playpen” type learning in schools. At times students need boundaries and criteria and scaffolds. At times they need instruction and modeling and structure. There are times when students need playpens. However, schools and classrooms also need to give students the chance to learn on the “playground”. At times students need the option to explore and discover and drive their own learning. At times they need opportunities to make decisions, make mistakes and make learning happen their way. Students need opportunities to learn through creative play. They need to play with toys and games. They need to play with materials. They need to play with ideas. And they need to play with others. Students need “playgrounds”. The structure of this playground type, more student-driven learning can take many different formats at different levels, some of which I explored in a blog post earlier this month entitled, Find your Passion.
In the end, today’s students need a balance of both “playpen” and “playground” learning opportunities in order to become the balanced, layered, skillful learners they need to be in our dynamic world. If we want creative thinkers and innovative problem solvers then we must set the stage for these characteristics to flourish. In the wise words, of Kay Redfield Jamison, Play is not a luxury. Play is a necessity.