A Brief Defense of Playing-as-Learning

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An indignant commenter on one of the pages I follow argues with homeschool parents on facebook, saying they only opposed public schools because they did poorly in them and they are bad facilitators of learning because they let their children play.

This commenter is, of course, a former teacher herself, and lauds her institution-backed expertise in the field of mathematics as making her qualified to speak on the matter. What she misses is that the parents who let their children play are excellent facilitators. By giving their children the freedom to engage in meaningful behavior, as simple as playing outside, they are giving them the opportunity to really, truly, learn.

Why is this? What does freedom have to do with true, deep learning?

To parse this out, we have to work backwards with the status quo of compulsory “learning,” ie., schooling.

If we assume that human beings are naturally curious creatures, as Aristotle did, then it makes sense that their natural state is one predispositioned towards learning and engaging deeply in the world around them. They have an implicit expectation that this is how discovering the world around them takes place. Watch a baby play with a remote control, a toy car, or just a piece of paper. They smack it around, chew on it, throw it, and eventually figure out how it is “supposed” to work, and have a great time while doing so. They don’t see learning and playing as two separate things.

As they grow older into the world, they are naturally driven towards this mindset. Children playing with legos discover how things fit together, how buildings must be built for basic structural integrity, and how to interact with other children. Minecraft, a favorite of young children, allows them to build things, tear them down, and put them back together again. They learn the difference between wood, rock, dirt, and more. They learn the value of work to extract wood. They may play SimCity and learn basic city planning and the economics related to it.

Then comes along a forced instructor. This may be an overzealous parent, a schoolteacher, or a priest. This person tells the child (now relegated to the status of “student”) that they must engage in certain activities and learn certain things. The path towards which they were naturally driven has now been blocked, and their mental energy siphoned elsewhere. Unless they are lucky and the starting-grounds for instruction just happen to align with what their interests are at that time (as may sometimes be the case!), they resent instruction.  Over time, they come to associate instruction with schooling, schooling with “learning,” (since advocates of compulsory schooling have co-opted the word and made it synonymous in popular vernacular with schooling), and therefore, they associate learning with the resentment they felt at being told to learn long division.

Resentment has a long history with varied analysis, going at least back to Bishop Joseph Butler’s Sermons at Rolls Chapel. At its core, it is the frustration of expectations. John has expectation A for his day, but Janine inserts herself into his life by no choosing of John’s own and determines his day will revolve around Janine’s expectation B. John resents this frustration of his expectations. The phrase “expectations” is a catchall that can be used to describe formal expectations — like those of a contract or a vow — or informal expectations — like norms and mores.

Even young children can have “expectations.” These are the subconscious strata on which they operate. At the most basic level, these can be anthropologically explained as “the natural way” people learn. So, when somebody else comes into a situation and says “you must learn what I say,” they frustrate the expectations of the child and create resentment.

Freedom, therefore, is the cure to this resentment of learning. Sure, learning by playing outside may not look like schooling, but it is much more in line with how young humans have come to learn over time. By not imposing what must be learned, and therefore not frustrating the expectations of the young, we allow them to flourish in their relationship with learning (or at least come to repair it after damage done by well-meaning educators and not-so-well-meaning planners).

Boston College psychologist Peter Gray summarizes playing-as-learning with this sonnet posted at his blog; it is a good way to think lightly on the subject:

In play we learn to think in ways most clear.

In play with others we resolve our strife.

In play we laugh at what provokes our fear.

In play we soar above our routine life.

In play we learn to follow rules we share,

Assert our selves while making others smile.

In play what’s right is what to all is fair.

In play it’s fun to go the extra mile.

And so to you the god of play we pray,

Please keep our ludic spirit’s liveliness.

As we approach the trials of each day,

Protect us from our over-seriousness.

From dust to dust we all end up the same.

What counts in life is how we play the game.

If you want to learn more about the importance of play to fulfilling learning, I highly recommend Gray’s book Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students For Life. You can find it on Amazon, here

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