Skip to main content
Askwith Education Forum

Askwith Essentials: The Power of Playful Learning

On October 21 at the Askwith Forums, a panel of educators and researchers will discuss ways to create formal educational settings where children can safely and successfully learn through play.

Parents and educators have seen that children learn by playing, just as they learn in the classroom. But can the two come together to teach lessons of collaboration, imagination, and problem-solving through playful learning in school? On October 21 at the Askwith Forums, a panel of educators and researchers will discuss ways to create formal educational settings where children can safely and successfully learn through play. The panel will be moderated by Benjamin Mardell, director of Project Zero’s Pedagogy of Play (PoP) and a researcher on play as a central component to childhood school learning.

There is much more to play than originally meets the eye. Children can play together (social play), by themselves (independent play), or within a context arranged by adults (guided play), and there are many variations of learning that occur within these various types of play. Project Zero asserts that playful learning can develop students’ intellectual, social, emotional, and physical abilities, but that finding a space for playful learning in schools can be challenging.  

Playful learning is not hard to spot — it is characterized by choice, wonder, and delight — but finding a way to fit this into the classroom is not straightforward. There are tensions between playful learning and traditional school structures, especially considering the cultural differences and variety of educational models that exist around the world. Additionally, neither students nor teachers perceive or experience play the same way as their peers. For instance, one child might be enraptured in a particular instance of guided play, while another might not experience the same setting as playful at all. On the instructional side, one teacher might see play as an ideal pathway to learning, while another might consider play to be silly and detrimental to efficient curriculum completion.

The forum’s panelists, who will gather to discuss how playful learning can effectively be brought into a child’s education, bring their expertise and a variety of perspectives:

  • Susan Harris MacKay, pedagogical director, Museum Center for Learning and Opal School, Portland Children’s Museum: “Adults have the opportunity to create environments that are as rich in possibilities for curiosity and discovery as an old growth forest or a beach at low tide,” says Harris MacKay. “Classroom environments should encourage children to become lost in their play, and adults to let them.
  • Jack Shonkoff, Julius B. Richmond FAMRI Professor of Child Health and Development, HGSE and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health; professor of pediatrics, Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital; director, Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University: “Play is exploration. Play is trying things. Play is trying to figure out when you do one thing, something else happens.  Play is trying to develop a sense of mastery of the world. A lot of that is done by providing an environment that is safe and provides opportunities for learning,” says Shonkoff.
  • Lynneth Solis, Ed.M.’10, Ed.D.’18, Senior Research Manager, Project Zero, HGSE: “There’s a call for systematic research on play,” says Solis. “Up to this point there’s been a lot of correlational research, but now methodological advances get us closer to understanding the developmental mechanisms involved in play from a biological and neurological perspective.”
  • Bo Stjerne Thomsen, vice-president and chair of Learning through Play, The LEGO Foundation: Stjerne Thomsen says, “We want to create a future where, when children learn through play, it empowers them to become creative, more motivated to learn, and able to come up with ideas they can share and make a difference for others."

Askwith Education Forum

Bringing innovators and influential leaders to the Harvard Graduate School of Education

Related Articles