When we play, as children or as adults, time stands still. We learn through failure, reflection, experimentation and collaboration, and when we reach that “a‒ha moment”, it presents its own reward. Play-based learning isn’t a concept just for infants and young children. Doing anything you truly enjoy is play, and you’ll know that by how it feels. Taking your car engine apart just to see what’s inside, or seeing what happens when you try making that pastry with porridge instead of pears. Play means we choose the things we need to reach our objective, or just helps us explore what that objective might be.
When Play-based Learning Happened Then Stopped
Lego. Wasn’t it great? Back then, in your lego days, you might also have dabbled in finger painting, or made jewelry from seashells. It was truly freeing, wasn’t it? Nobody was grading you, and it’s likely you never looked at your finger-painted rendition of your house and family and wondered “is this a bad painting?” Instead, you delighted in the process, and that delight was its own reward.
Then you stepped into kindergarten and things started to change. Now, you were on a chart. You had stars, or smiley faces, and you could see your name up there compared to the others. What you did at play was somehow connected to that chart, and gaps began to form.
At the end of only a few months, you probably knew who were the “good” kids and who were more interested in eating the glitter. You knew because of that chart and the story it attached to you. Though it was disguised, and subtle, it started to categorise you.
But you wanted that smiley face or those gold stars, perhaps. Who didn’t? We didn’t really know why, but more stars seemed to be good.
It was the same in the next school, though now you had reports, parents’ evenings and scores.The rewards changed from stars and smiley faces to numbers, and they became new characters in the story you told yourself. 10/20 on maths and 7/10 on spelling. Comparisons became inevitable. The numbers told you stories, as you moved away from the stars.
In high school, A’s and B’s in certain subjects meant you were treated differently, and maybe even moved and separated from those further down the alphabet. Those getting A’s and B’s in some subjects perhaps went to do those same things at university or college. You know now that many of them never actually used it for long, if they did at all.
Others left when they could and went into employment, where A’s became promotions and “well done”. F’s became poor performance reports, and written warnings.
The Importance of Play-based Learning in a Learner’s Journey
Through play-based learning, we learn useful skills like building agreement around the best way to do a project, or how to step back, and come up with new solutions to challenges that frustrate us. Play is about understanding processes and building skills, and these are the things we’ll need to have inside as we step out into a challenging world.
Memorising historical facts is of little use in the world of tomorrow, but developing the passion and skills around historical thinking; well that’s something we can take with us, is it not? When you learn to enjoy the journey, the destination doesn’t matter so much. In fact, you might just want to keep moving and never stop.
“Whoever wants to understand much must play much” (Gottfried Benn)
A New Learning Paradigm with its own Rewards
In our new education paradigm, we don’t divide by numbers and letters, because we know that motivation is better when it comes from inside. External motivation of good report cards, letters, numbers and smiles, is just a grey lump of rock next to the supernova of internal passion and drive. In fact, they occupy different galaxies all together.
Positive experiences of learning on our own terms, create positive experiences of learning in general, ownership of the skills and knowledge that you want to build, and a strong sense of self efficacy. You can do it, and you know that because you just did it.
In this new learning paradigm, it’s all happening inside. A neuron fires a signal along the axions to connect with another neuron and tonight as you sleep deeply, your brain will wire that connection tightly, just because it feels good and will be useful. Not only is that learning now still accessible to you the next morning, but revisiting it is pleasurable too. Learning is always fun when you’re in control.
In this new paradigm, the reward is always within. To be frank, it really always was, and perhaps we just forgot that for a while. To delight in learning brings its own successes and its own reward. In the end, why ask our children to aim for two stars on a chart, when there is already a whole universe inside them.
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