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  • Writer's pictureMichele Gregoire Gill

Learning as Play: Why Play Should the Metaphor for 21st Century Learning

Why are we so resistant to language that frames learning as playful? To framing learning communities as nurturing? Several years ago, at a school board meeting for a school I founded, I was overruled by other board members for my suggestion that our tagline be "Nurturing the unique gifts of learners." That's too touchy-feely, I was told. It won't appeal to the dads. We should highlight our STEM focus, our creative approach to learning. And that's how the board voted. But in practice, those of us at the school tend to default to the first tagline because it really captures what is unique about our little school. I find that terribly sad--that nurturing kids is seen as something "unique" about a public school and its mission. In this era of high-stakes testing, we have quantified kids' achievement, set rigorous demands on their behavior. Play seems extraneous. But is it? Play advances Learning According to Vygostky, learning ADVANCES through instruction in the learner's zone of proximal development (a fancy term meaning that space between what they can do alone to where they can go with some help) and play is one very powerful way to stretch from one's actual developmental level to their level of potential development. There's a whole approach to preschool based on applying play as a foundational model for learning in the Tools of the Mind approach, a wildly successful preschool curriculum. Here's a prime example of kids being stretched beyond what they consciously are capable of because of PLAY. Four year olds when told to stand still, could only do it for a minute or less. However, for those who were told they were standing guard at a factory, they were able to stand still for more than four minutes! How we frame learning matters. Play is a powerful, effective frame. A Personal Example I know personally and professional the tremendous power of play to improve learning. I love yoga, have loved it for over 30 years, but the more advanced I became in my learning, the less I liked it because my teacher's approach to the practice was mostly rigor and little play. There were no deviations allowed from the form, except modifications of poses, but the sequence was the same, and we were told that if we weren't doing yoga for 1 1/2 hours a day 6-7 days a week, we weren't doing yoga. When my body longed for different stretches, I wasn't allowed to do them because I had to complete all the standing poses and primary series first before ever attempting backbends. And when I had kids, life became overly busy and complicated, and I didn't have time to sleep, not to mention not having 1 1/2 hours/day for a focused, uninterrupted meditation practice. And so, because I tend to be a rules-based type of person, I just sort of quit doing this style of yoga. I tried other approaches off and on during the years and kept doing some favorite poses here and there, but I didn't have a regular practice because I couldn't do the practice I loved the "right way." I wonder if that is how some of our students feel when they come up with different ways of solving math problems or approaching school assignments? I know my 11 year old says he can't write, hates it actually, but he is one of the best story-tellers I know, drawing elaborate graphic novels and creating intricate text-based video games involving a complex plot with a complete story arc. But these don't count because they are not a 5 paragraph essay. I'm not saying kids shouldn't be taught a 5 paragraph essay or that the following a set series of yoga postures is wrong: I am saying, though, that these forms should be held lightly, and we need to consider our students and their goals when deciding how to approach instruction. And most of all, we need to include play as the primary pedagogical method, especially in the beginning, or when things get hard or boring or we hit a wall. For example, what if my son was allowed to play with story and characterization through his video game story? And then, what if he was asked to see if he could write the story out in graphic novel form to share with others, giving some backstory to his game? And then, maybe, he could be invited to elaborate his story in a more traditional narrative but be allowed to play with the form of it? And for me, what if my teacher had encouraged us to play with the form, find out own way of making it our own? For those who wanted the challenge of mastering the "classical" form, well then that option would certainly be open for them. (And when it got too challenging or their bodies faced resistance to a pose, even then, I would encourage play). But for those of us whose only goal was to have a regular yoga practice that we enjoyed and which helped our bodies stay mobile and our minds at peace, well we would have freedom to "riff" on the form. In both cases, though, play would be the predominant learning modality prescribed when the practitioner "hits the wall," or runs into some kind of boundary condition. Professional Example

Wearing my academic hat, I find the same tension, which I've modeled in my conceptual-affective model of conceptual change. Research on belief change shows that most of us are resistant to changes in core beliefs that are related to our identity. In my model, I propose that having one's beliefs negated (aka running into a boundary condition) can provoke a sense of threat, which undermines learning and change. However, if one has the resources and ability to handle the conflict, then the experience has the potential to be perceived as a challenge--which is a much more playful, interesting space than being threatened. For new approaches, for STRETCHING our learning--for us to move through our ZPD--we must be challenged. Challenge is necessary. Play is What Makes it Fun, Possible, Doable As my model shows, not being challenged may be fine for regular, everyday learning, but for new growth, some kind of challenge is necessary, or the person just continues doing the same old thing, without significance change. Just like in yoga--if you only do the poses you can do, you don't advance in your skill and your body's mobility doesn't increase. The hard poses are seen as a threat. And if you try too hard, without help, you might hurt yourself, or at least get so frustrated, moving beyond the ZPD to where you give up or think you can't do it. Play is where the magic is--it is a modality for working through the learning zone, a scaffold that allows us to experiment with the boundary condition, testing it, finding where there might be even a little bit of give. And there's less resistance, mentally and physically, because play is "low stakes." I now approach yoga, even my beloved classical practice, much more playfully. And surprisingly, I find myself doing it more regularly, and even more "correctly" then when I was forcing myself to be disciplined. Ironically, I recently came across a new book written by my former yoga teacher, and in it, with a nod to her aging body, she proposes a much, much more modified yoga practice. Without apology! If I had only known that years ago, I might be an advanced yogi by now. It's not too late for me, and it's certainly not too late for our country. An attitude of play toward learning has the potential to transform schooling from a dreaded obstacle or series of boring hoops to a place of lively curiosity, exploration, and dare I say it, even fun?

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Michelle Tichy
May 09, 2020

At this moment when the whole world is on pause, because of the pandemic, this blog has sparked the desire to bring joy and wonder back to all students. I believe that this, play, truly is one of the most important metaphors for learning in the 21st century. May this moment in human history help us remember the critical nature of curiosity, creativity, and inspiration for all of us when we are learning and growing. May we remember the wisdom of scholars like Vygotsky and newer voices such as David Elkind to remind us of how essential and powerful play is to sparking the human spirit to learn! Thank you.

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