The term ‘play based learning’ now evokes in me a much different feeling than it once did. Something like nails on a chalkboard perhaps? Not because I don’t believe in children learning through play, no. But because it appears that the term has been hijacked.
Most times that I scroll through my facebook feed I am confronted with countless new, ‘fun’, ‘amazing’ ideas of what people are calling ‘play based learning’. But I fear we have become a little confused. With the push for kids to be learning more and more at even younger ages, and more real play time being sacrificed in the pursuit of ‘keeping up’ or ‘getting ahead’, it infuriates me to see people calling clearly adult directed activities ‘play’. Why? Because play, real play, is IMPORTANT. I’m not sure how many times we have to say this. Study after study after study has confirmed it. And when we start twisting the word play to mean something adult led, then we lose our understanding of what children truly need. We stop advocating for play because we’re told schools are doing ‘play based learning’ now. And that’s what kids need right? Well, that obviously depends on your definition.
The other day I came across one of these activities, purportedly mixing ‘play’ with learning. A set of cards with actions on them to do while you read. The child picks one like ‘stomp your feet’ or ‘clap your hands’ and does the action while reading. People were loving it! They commented about how ‘fun’ it was for the kids. How great it was to combine play with learning! And of course about how it was a great idea for ‘play based learning’.
Let me unequivocally say, this is not play based learning.
Play is not something you do to a child.
If you have an agenda, if you are requiring them to do it, if you have to make it ‘fun’ to get them to comply, if they are not free to stop at any time, then it is not play.
“Children need the freedom and time to play. Play is not a luxury. Play is a necessity.” -Kay Redfield Jamison
What is play?
Play is self-chosen. Children were born to play. They love to play. They will play all day if they’re allowed. If you have to coax them into doing something, then it’s not play. Play never feels like work or an obligation.
Play is enjoyable. Play is fun! Play has no agenda. Play is not for the purpose of meeting adult goals.
Play is inherently valuable. All play is learning. No matter what it is. Whether you can clearly see the skills being mastered or not. There is no hierarchy of play.
Play is unstructured. In play, children make the rules. They decide how long they play for and what direction their play takes.
“Perhaps play would be more respected if we called it something like “self-motivated practice of life skills,” but that would remove the lightheartedness from it and thereby reduce its effectiveness. So, we are stuck with the paradox. We must accept play’s triviality in order to realize its profundity.”
– Peter Gray, Free to Learn
It seems we have rightly latched onto the idea that play based learning is what is best for children. But, instead of recognising the obvious value in free unstructured play, we have twisted it into a way to get children to learn what we want them to learn. Instead of making more time for play, we’re defeating it’s purpose by pushing adult agendas and requirements. Need 5 year olds to learn their letters? Make a ‘fun’ playful activity and call it ‘play based learning’. But that’s not how it works. We do such a disservice to children by trying to use their natural inclinations for self-education against them, as a way to get them to conform to what we want them to do.
I’m not saying don’t play with your kids, don’t make suggestions, or don’t set up things for them to explore. But, be mindful of your agenda. Children should feel free to play and use what is available however they like, with no expectations. Maybe Johnny paints a picture of a flower with the paints you left out for him. Maybe he experiments with mixing colours. Or maybe he just wants to squirt the paint in his belly button. It doesn’t matter, because it’s his choice. He is learning through play, and that is always surprising and beautiful to watch.
I believe so strongly in the value of free unstructured play for children. This is where true learning is found! Let’s stop confusing the meaning of play based learning. Let’s leave play to the experts, children. It is not ours to control or influence.
Play is not something you do to a child.
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