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Askwith Education Forum

The Power of Playful Learning

A lively discussion on the benefits — as well as some of the challenges — of bringing elements of play into schooling.
The Power of Playful Learning
The Lego Foundation's Bo Stjerne Thomsen and Project Zero's Lynneth Solis participate in the opening activity at the Askwith Forums on October 21
Photos: Elio Pajares

At Monday’s Askwith Forum, The Power of Playful Learning, a panel of experts came together to discuss how educational settings can more effectively incorporate play into school.

Moderator Ben Mardell of HGSE’s Project Zero set the tone of the session by encouraging the panelists to introduce themselves with a recent example of playfulness in their own lives. He then launched into the evening’s next activity, in which colorful scraps of paper were distributed to each person in the audience for several minutes of free play and exploration. Other than the instruction to work in pairs and jot down any discoveries or questions that came up, the audience had complete freedom with the paper.

After five minutes of exploration, Mardell polled the audience who had a range reactions. The activity had been especially enjoyable for some, but thoroughly unappreciated by others — everyone in the audience had received the lesson differently. The response demonstrated one of the major challenges of playful learning in an education setting: Even when exploratory learning is happening (Mardell overheard comments such as “I wonder if ___,” “I wonder why ___,” and “What if I do this…”), it is not always playful for all of the learners.

The Power of Playful Learning
Audience members participate in the opening activity at the Askwith Forums on October 21
Photo: Elio Pajares

Despite this challenge, playful learning fills gaps and provides balance in classrooms that follow traditional structures. For example, while school is generally orderly and has a set schedule, agenda, and culture, play is messy, risky, timeless, and involves students being in charge and creating their own culture. These values strengthen many of the life skills that have become most expected of today’s children.

“A new skill set is expected of children today, so we shouldn’t be stuck in old ways of learning,” said Bo Stjerne Thomsen, vice-president and chair of Learning through Play at the LEGO Foundation. “There is a greater focus on social-emotional skills, including empathy.” These are skills that play, more than a traditional classroom lesson, can provide.

“Play is not where you build ‘soft skills’ or ‘21st-century skills,’” said Professor Jack Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. “The skills gained through play are as relevant now as they have always been.”

Susan Harris MacKay, pedagogical director of the Museum Center for Learning and Opal School at Portland Children’s Museum, shared a story about a fifth-grade student who was being silly while sculpting in art class. In that moment, the teacher needed to decide whether or not the student should be stopped and disciplined, or if his playfulness toward the project could be beneficial. A few seconds later, the clay sculpture that the student had been playing with collapsed, inspiring the student to take the project in a new direction that yielded an impressive final outcome and a deep reflection on the rebuilding process. The opportunity to play led to this result.

Project Zero researcher Lynneth Solis, Ed.M.’10, Ed.D.’18, warned, however, that there are significant cultural differences regarding play, and that we need to consider how different types of playful learning might be effective in some cultures (from classroom to classroom and even country to country) and not in others.

The Power of Playful Learning
The panel: Ben Mardell, Susan Harris MacKay, Bo Stjerne Thomsen, Lynneth Solis, and Jack Shonkoff
Photo: Elio Pajares

“Play is culturally determined,” Solis shared. “Even though play is a universal experience, it is also a cultural construct. Who children play with, when and where they play, when they stop playing … these are all determined by communities, the resources available, and teachers’ leaning goals.”

The panelists agreed that every child stands to gain from playful learning — as the alternative is quite simply to not enjoy learning — and that adult buy-in and support are essential to effectively bringing playful learning into the classroom. Many adults need to relearn lessons that might not have been taught to them when they were children, such as that it is okay to fail.

“We have taken away from adults knowing how to play,” asserted Shonkoff. “I appreciate the demands and rigor of conventional rules and how to study things, but if it ends there and there’s no room for hypothesis and playful thinking, we get fields that don’t have as much progress as they should.”

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