"Study first, then play" - but why can't it be both?

March 31, 2021

Have you ever made this bargain with your kids,  “Study first, then you can play”?

If you have, you are definitely not alone. This negotiation has been made by parents and teachers since time immemorial as the big, shiny carrot, to get children to put in the hard work of learning before they can indulge in the joy of playing.  

What if learning can be play and play can be learning?

If you are a kid, this will probably be the best news you’ve heard since the announcement of schools closing due to the pandemic. If you are a parent or a teacher, you might be a little doubtful or believe that learning through play is only meant for kindergarten-aged children.

Let’s explore this idea by first asking ourselves - what do we think play is? For parents of younger children you might think of playing as your kids running around with ‘hide and seek’, making a mess finger-painting, or dancing to Peppa Pig. For parents of teenagers, video games might come to mind. While these activities are examples of certain forms or subset of play, Peter Gray, a research professor of psychology at Boston College and author of multiple texts on the topic, defines ‘play’ using these five characteristics:

1. The means are more important than the end

When your child is enjoying the activity they are participating in, they stay on for the thrill and joy of doing it, and not necessarily to achieve the end goal. It is the process of completing the activity that they commit themselves to, not the product produced at the end. Imagine if you were a child and you were making a sandcastle in your sandbox. You would be mixing sand with water, moulding the sand into shape and crafting the tower. What if someone then comes over to tell you to stop building because they can make a more elaborate sandcastle for you? That kind of misses the point of building, doesn’t it? So while you may end up with a more elaborate, fancier sandcastle (courtesy of someone else), you miss out on the experience and learning for yourself the art of designing a castle compound, the chemistry of how different substances mix together, and the physics of stacking up a tower.

Image taken from Life As Mama

2. Play is imaginative - it takes the serious out of the real, but also adds serious into the imagined

During a make-believe tea party, one could pour tea and drink it, although as it is imaginary tea, one could also just as easily eat it with a fork. In the real world, a horse can trot in any direction; but in chess, it is governed by the man-made rules of an imaginary world, so a horse moves in an L-shape. From these two examples, you can observe how a person engaging in play, while grounded in the real world is also free to exercise their imagination and engage in a world that is different from the real world.  

3. Play is guided by mental rules - while imaginative, it also teaches self control

When kids play they are actually learning and practicing self-control. Play typically has rules invented in the player’s mind or accepted rules from others. The more obvious games with rules are found in sports like basketball or tennis but even games such as building and governing a pretend-country have their own rules as well. Structure or rules (though it is not real, it is real to everyone in the game) provides the constraints for the actions to occur and through this our children learn to abide by socially agreed-upon rules, control their impulses, and play safely.

Image taken from Noor Anand Chawla

4. Play involves an active but non-stressed frame of mind - allowing creativity to flourish

It’s common to believe that play is indicated through the presence of laughter, smiles, high-fives, the little wiggle dance, and happy expressions. However, enjoying an activity does not necessarily mean laughing out loud or even smiling. But, it does mean a ticking brain! When you are engaging in an activity you enjoy, your mind is active, alert, but usually not highly-stressed.

For example, when you are participating in an escape room challenge, you may be struggling to break the code to unlock the door, but your mind is on alert and you are actively working your brain in figuring out the solution to escape. In the midst of cracking the puzzles, you are enjoying yourself and the company of the people you are with. When children (or even adults) are pressured to perform well (which induces a non-playful state), we typically fall back on instinctive or habitual ways of doing things. While this may be great as a response to emergency situations (when a bear is chasing you, you use whatever means you have already learned for getting away or hiding; that is not a good time to experiment with new ways), what is most needed for our children to thrive in today’s world is to learn how to solve problems with no obvious solutions. This requires creativity and the learning of new skills, which flourishes in a playful environment.  

5. Play is self-chosen and self directed; above all it’s a choice

In most play situations, there is freedom of choice. This means one can choose to participate in a game or choose to stop. Furthermore, players have the freedom to direct their own actions and can choose how they want to play within the constraints of the rules agreed by everyone in the game. This gives players a strong sense of autonomy and responsibility. Think about it: when you make your own decisions you are more likely to explore options, learn and persevere compared to if someone else made that decision for you!

So imagine this...
What if your kids freely chose to learn instead of being told to learn?

Dig deeper into this topic with us in The HEART Course: Session E

It’s the journey that transforms us, not the destination. What does it mean to enjoy the process of delivering education together with those who are part of it? How can we make education enjoyable and engage students in today’s world? Find out what global thought leaders are saying about this and join the discussion in The HEART Course - Session E: Enjoy What You Do and Who You Do It With.

The HEART Course is a free online course which creates a space where educators are excited to connect over ideas in education and start conversations that bring change to their classroom, school, and community.

In five sessions H-E-A-R and T, you can WATCH discussions and best practices from global thought-leaders following five themes in education. There also conversation prompts to help your group of educators DISCUSS ideas after each video, and toolkits to APPLY what you have learned. Each session also has a growing curation of resources from over 30 education partners in Malaysia and beyond. Educators like yourself can CONNECT with these partners to bring students’ learning beyond the classroom!

Get started with The HEART Course here.

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Leaps of Knowledge: The HEART Series