A critique of ‘play-based’ learning.

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What can a tower of blocks reveal about pedagogy and creativity?

This tower of blocks was built on Monday by a group of 5 and 6 year olds. There were plenty of willing workers as well as plenty of discussion and negotiation. For this group of children it was the centre of their attention during the designated ‘play’ time on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. By Thursday attentions had turned to some other creative endeavour. On Friday afternoon I finally requested that the tower be ‘demolished’ and all the equipment returned to its correct place. Photos were taken and it was then taken down without complaint.

Throughout the whole week it was continually being repaired, remodelled, enhanced, adjusted. The ‘treasure’ in the middle of the tower was kept safe. At all times of the day, even if it wasn’t ‘play’ time, the children moved and worked around it. For me it turned out to be a wonderful learning opportunity – to observe the process and the interactions centred around this construction. I marvelled but was not surprised that the tower stayed up all week, or that it was built with such intent and purpose, or that it generated such high levels of student engagement.

Critically, at no stage during the week did I state explicitly how this tower should be managed. And this is the key element that I want to convey via this story. That is, it was the classroom culture, built up deliberately over time, that allowed for this scenario to take place. It did not happen by accident. It has taken time and it has taken deliberate, sustained and repeated actions by me. The ability to make great learning happen – whether it be academic, social or creative – is no accident. And the awareness of the deliberate actions that a teacher employs, to get the desired learning outcomes, is where the power lies. It is this culture that allows a super-charged learning environment to flourish.

For some time I have been an advocate for providing the students in my class with opportunities to “play” as a way of improving academic, social and creative learning outcomes. I too, was seduced by SKR’s argument to address the “creativity deficit” in schools. We are told that through play, children can develop social and cognitive skills, mature emotionally, and gain the self-confidence required to engage in new experiences and environments. And while I believe this argument is compelling, there is a ‘but’. I have recently come to realise that providing students with opportunities to ‘play’ or be ‘creative’ is, on its own, insufficient to generate the improved learning outcomes that we are told that we should be seeking for all children.

Why? My criticism falls into two categories. Firstly, because the topic of conversation should be all about evidence and effective pedagogy. Teachers should be doing what works best to create high rates of learning for all students. Too often I see ‘play -based’ learning being introduced without a full understanding or awareness of its impact. The “why are we doing this?” question is not being asked or if it is being asked, it is not being answered satisfactorily. I fear that the potential value of ‘play-based’ learning, as a way of improving learning outcomes, is being squandered.

As the above story reveals, I have certainly found value in offering students structured and deliberate ‘play’ time. That’s because it is intrinsically good but it works really effectively as a contingency. It generates student agency. As in, “I want you to be creative and have lots of opportunities to play, but I also need you to be an engaged, self motivated learner who can manage your emotions.” External motivators eventually become internalised. That’s when my job is done. It’s at that point that the students take ownership of their learning and start teaching one another. I step back and watch the magic unfold. Teaching is really not as hard as you may have been led to believe.

Secondly, too often I see ‘play’ being introduced with a narrow and prescriptive academic learning intention. As in, “you will play with these different shaped blocks and then we will complete this worksheet on shapes because we are learning about shapes”. I would not describe that as an effective use of ‘play’ time. And to be clear, it will be clear when ‘play-based learning’ is working well. You can recognise when students are fully engaged in ‘play’. Among other things, the students will have a wide range of interesting resources to use, they will know how to use it appropriately, their play will be growing in complexity and iteration, time flies, social interactions are positive…

And it is in these moments of pure play that I can choose my teaching role. This is because I split up my teaching day into two parts. In the morning it is generally, teacher-led/student-sensitive learning that you will see. Later on in the day, I hand over some control to the students to generate their own learning, based on their own interests and what resources I make available to them. But, the key point that I really want to emphasise is that at all times of the day, whether it is teacher directed or student directed, student agency is the critical ingredient. That is, high levels of student agency are present in all the learning that is taking place. In effect, that means my job is about supporting students to develop their own agency whether I am directing the learning or they are. I am trying to get them to be self-directed, responsive learners and citizens of the class.

So in fact, during this student self-directed learning time, I may use it to do some remedial teaching – academic and/or social. Or I may use it as an opportunity to introduce a special project to provoke or extend some learners. Or may choose to listen, observe and respond to the comments/inquiries that the students are generating. Or I may just choose to join in the fun and learn from and about the students. I am yet to meet a student who does not respond positively to my amazement at their cleverness. It’s a virtuous circle of learning.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

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2 thoughts on “A critique of ‘play-based’ learning.

  1. Pingback: Exploring the wide-ranging consequences of ‘knowing your impact’. | Ease Education

  2. Pingback: Teaching to the 100% – a model to help teachers move beyond surviving, to thriving. | Ease Education

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