Playing to succeed

8 Oct

When you are a teacher you often think about the longterm outcome of your teaching. I agonise over questions like: Am I teaching children longterm values and skills that will still be applicable 20 years on? Am I really preparing children for an uncertain, demanding, ever-changing future? I do not know. With millions of teachers and parents all over the world I realise that educating and preparing children for the future is at best a guessing game.

It is, however, easier nowadays to determine what children want from their teachers and parents. Contrary to popular belief, children do not want to do nothing. They want to play, yes that is true, but playing is officially recognised as absolutely necessary for learning so that does not count as wanting to do nothing. The problem is though, that many teachers and parents still do not realise that playing is the only way of learning. The problem with play is that we cannot test what the children learned from playing. There is often not an immediate input  – output process like in a factory. Children also play in atypical ways. Boys run around and make growling noises when they are four years old. Girls play tea parties and very civilised dress-up games. Do they learn the same thing? Do they learn anything?

If we look at brain development and the information about how brains work and how young children learn, we know today that children learn in the first place by exploring their lifeworld with their taste, touch,smell and kinesthetic senses. Yesterday I passed a car 06:20 in the morning and I saw a small little face pearing out of the window at the world rushing past. The driver was a father, taking his young child to a care facility. Many care facilities provide young children with real lifeworld experiences but it also unfortunately true that many places provide them with care but very little real lifeworld environments where they can explore with all their senses and learn about the world around them.

These children might get to know the world as a strange and distant place. The characters on TV are probably more real to them than the real world. Speculating about the longterm effect of this distance between the real world and the knowledge of young children can create a quite scary scenario in our minds. In one of the “Visions of the Future” series of the BBC, the presenter is talking to people for whom the virtual digital world is infinitely preferable to the real world.

When children are playing they take responsibility for their own learning. Professor Sugata Mitra (Professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University, UK) says that children have this amazing ability to learn what they need to learn. He also says that learning is something that takes place without the intervention of adults. A very sobering thought  for caring, dedicated parents!

The pinnacle of play is imagination play or fantasy play. Playing and planning imaginative play with someone else is certainly one of the best ways to learn that other people also have needs and rights. Learning to judge a situation by realising when to take the lead and when to be a follower is also important. Even more important is the aspect of knowing when to make your needs subservient to the needs of the group.

Many of the skills children explore in playing are skills that stay with them for the rest of their life. These are the skills that greatly influence success in life. Through play children learn how to communicate and negotiate; they learn how to solve social and emotional conflicts by talking about differences;  they learn that compromising is an important way to ensure a win-win situation.

I conclude with this quote from Vygotsky (in Berk & Winsler, 1995:52): … Play creates a zone of proximal development in the child. In play, the child always behaves beyond his average age, above his daily behavior; in play it is as though he were a head taller than himself. As in the focus of a magnifying glass play contains all developmental tendencies in a condensed form and is itself a major source of development …

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