Part 1: Playful Learning
Why The Best Learning Feels Like Play
School, to the modern mind, connotes tension.
The stress on instructors and learners can be mind-numbing. Almost addictive.
For students, learning is a slog through endless hours of lectures, tests and mundane assignments. Teachers are on a race to reach curriculum goals, supervise exams, mark test papers and with some time to spare attend staff meetings.
If all goes well, we can exhale; go on holiday and brace ourselves for the next bout of school activities. Challenges, like when a student is consistently failing tests, are relegated to meeting-with-parents-to-discuss-your-child’s-progress charades. Our idea of learning has become an apparition.
No wonder, after graduating campus, most develop a resistance towards learning. Years of unengaged instruction turns minds stale. The bristling imagination of youth is replaced with passive consumption in adulthood.
But the oddities of childhood can be revived. When we commit to rediscovering the wonder and joy of play in our learning, the benefits to society and the individual are revolutionary.
The Modern Classroom
Nita is one of my favorite students. But when I first met her, she seemed irritable and annoying. She had been developing a resistance towards private music lessons. I had been warned of her remarkable ability to act out and disrupt classes with frenzies of wailing.
I remember hesitating to take her up and even suggesting to her mother that maybe playing an instrument wasn’t suitable for her. Dealing with a student who comes across as unruly can be a soul drain. But her mother insisted that she continue with her music education.
The first few lessons were okay. Even rewarding. I was happy with her progress. Then tantrums showed up and for months, I hated the idea of interacting with her.
On a particular Thursday afternoon, right before our lesson, she came up wanting to show me a game that she’s obsessed with: Roblox. Watching her play provided insight into my teaching habits: I was boring. In the game she could create her own world, dress the way she wanted, link ideas, shift perspectives, and experiment as much as possible: all without formal classes on how-to-play-Roblox. At once, I felt both dumb and aware: our classes were following a stale schedule that rarely embraced deviation. It seemed to me that integrating elements of play into our lessons may provide a fresh direction for both of us.
Play is child-centered. It focuses on the ideas and interests of the child. In play children are flexible, and open to diversions. Goal orientation becomes secondary to imagination and exploration. Learning that focuses only on a child’s immediate interests can degenerate into chaos when integrated into the classroom without design: curriculum goals can be substituted for the non-essential.
Teaching that’s only focused on meeting objectives creates frustrated teachers and disengaged learners. Teachers rightly concerned with salaries and performance reviews are in a fix. They want to get their jobs done well because bills are a priority leaving little room for the startling contradictions of experimentation and the resultant joys of discovery.
In fact teacher and student are afraid of losing control of the lesson.
Children wonder: “If school is good for me, why is it boring?” For the adults, there’s an overwhelming feeling of emptiness at the end of another bland work-day. Teaching becomes a chore from which we’d rather escape, fast.
Playful learning is an enigma that embraces a child’s inherent desire to take charge during play with the adult drive to meet curriculum goals.
Allowing this kind of dynamic doesn’t guarantee results. It demands an openness to surprise and disappointment: comfort with the unknown, the unpredictable and the unexpected.
Letting go of control invites risk.
There’s the possibility that the teacher may not achieve his goals because diversions can lead farther away from lesson plans. Students who forge towards independence can threaten a teacher’s sense of meaning and worth, and when they’re left to choose what they learn and how they learn, they may lack the focus and discipline required to work through difficult topics.
Playful learning may help solve the unique challenge presented by the teacher’s need to meet targets and the student needs for discovery and play. By aligning the objectives of teachers with the interests of learners, we can unlock the latent learning potential in students that yearns to be unshackled from boredom and intellectual dependence on adults.