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‘We never stop learning through play, we just stop teaching through play’

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 6 January 2021

IOE Events.

From rule-bound games to unstructured exploration, play brings us a lot of satisfaction. Its powers are increasingly recognised in the world of work. But it remains the ‘poor relation’ in our education system, certainly beyond the early years phase.

To assess whether we’ve got that right for our older learners, our final ‘What If…’ debate of 2020 drew on a diverse set of expertise in the form of cognitive scientist Dr Sara Baker (Cambridge University); director of evidence, Tom McBride (Early Intervention Foundation); author Michael Rosen; and former computer science teacher and play-based learning expert, Shahneila Saeed (Ukie). You can read more about our panellists here.

It seems that play is one of those rare examples of something that is both enjoyable and good for us – the equivalent of chocolate flavoured broccoli, if you will, to invoke the spirit of some of our most playful children’s literature …and chefs. As our panel explained, many of the features we associate most readily with play are also great for learning: in particular, being active, being engaged in something meaningful to you, and navigating something that is open-ended and involves choice. In the ensuing trial and error, play also fosters creativity and inventiveness, and it’s no surprise to learn that play’s had a pivotal role in some of the greatest discoveries in science and art.

While harnessing play for learning is an important aspect of early years policy and practice, as a general rule this approach tails off as we move through the school year groups, let alone into further and higher education. As one panellist summed up, ‘We never stop learning through play, we just stop teaching through play’. (There are of course exceptions: one speaker’s genetics degree involved the deployment of Play-Doh; other forms of coloured, malleable material are available.)

Why does play not enjoy greater recognition? On that question our discussion took us back to the 16th century and the religious, political, intellectual and cultural upheavals of the Protestant Reformation. Its notions that ‘frivolousness’ is bad and that the Devil makes work for idle hands, remain ingrained in our culture. Equally, we have not really explored how play is deeply embedded in our nature.

Perhaps as cognitive science reveals more about how we learn it will help to extend the application of ‘playful learning’. In the meantime, our debate touched upon other benefits of play that arguably have increasing salience in the 21stcentury. One concerns (young) people’s sense of agency and ability to effect change. Rather than receiving the world as it is, play is about discovering the possibilities of change (albeit some would argue that knowledge is a vital part of that, too). The other concerns the rapid pace of change in the contemporary labour market, which requires us to remain engaged in learning throughout our lives, which playful approaches can surely help with.

There are important implications in all this for how we prepare teachers for their professional practice. Playful approaches to learning require teachers to be comfortable with open-endedness and spontaneity. And this, in turn, requires courage. ‘Planning in the moment’ is part of early years teacher practice; professional preparation for later phases might take inspiration from this, in terms of both its desired ‘learning outcomes’ and its own pedagogy.

But most of all, we need to retain the value of play for its own sake, for the enjoyment it brings us in the absence of a fear of failure. And you never know: the next time you drop a stitch, hit the wrong note or miss the goal, you might even create a whole new genre…

Watch or listen back to the full debate here.

Next up in our What if…? debates series: reading for pleasure and girls’ education. If you’re not already on it, you’re very welcome to sign-up to our mailing list here to receive notifications about these and other events from the IOE, including the IOE Coffee Breaks series and our Professorial Public Lectures.

Photo: Tiger cubs playing by Cloudtail the Snow Leopard via Creative Commons

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