Children Learn through Play – So, Why Aren’t We Letting Them?


May 22, 2015


Somewhere along the road to parenthood, this generation of new parents has forgotten or rejected what our parents seemed intuitively to sense and our teachers have always known: Playtime is an important part of growth and development. Science is finally proving their discernment, but we have yet to catch on. Our premise seems logical: The earlier a child learns, the more advanced and successful he or she will be throughout school, throughout life. And with rising incomes and better living standards, thankfully, we are able to provide this early childhood education. The problem is, we’re not considering how children learn—and, as research is proving, children learn through play.

Children’s brains are wired to explore and move; they are not wired to sit still and unquestioningly imbibe facts and figures. While this method might work (questionably) for older kids, basic biology makes it less preferable, possibly even detrimental, for youngsters. A recent report on this topic by America’s National Public Radio explains why:

“‘The experience of play changes the connections of the neurons at the front end of your brain,’ says Sergio Pellis, a researcher at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada. ‘And without play experience, those neurons aren’t changed,’ he says. It is those changes in the prefrontal cortex during childhood that help wire up the brain’s executive control center, which has a critical role in regulating emotions, making plans and solving problems, Pellis says. So play, he adds, is what prepares a young brain for life, love and even schoolwork.”

But what happens when you put a young child in a didactic environment, as so many parents desire? A study by Rebecca A. Marcon, a psychology professor at the University of North Florida, suggests academic instruction in early childhood actually hinders academic progress later on. By examining the performance of more than 300 third- and fourth-graders, and comparing it to whether they went to an “academically oriented” preschool, a “child initiated” (play/discovery-focused) one, or one that combines both approaches, Marcon concludes children’s progress “may have been slowed by overly academic preschool experiences that introduced formalized learning experiences too early for most children’s developmental status.”

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Unfortunately, it’s not just preschools that are the problem. According to Jay Giedd, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego, up to the age of 7 or 8, kids learn better through active exploration than academic instruction. This means children are well into the Indian education system – known for its rote, unquestioning style of instruction – when they should be learning in a more interactive, exploratory manner.

Thankfully, in tiny pockets of the country, this is slowly changing. New teaching methods that take into account the fact that children learn through play are slowly finding their way into curricula. Arnab Datta taught children aged 4 to 7 for several years as a founding teacher of 3.2.1, a privately funded government school in Mumbai. During a typical math lesson, he says, his students would work in four small groups; three of the groups would perform playful, math-related tasks – puzzles, manipulation games, colouring – while the fourth station would be a free-play station. He found, during free play, children used the material from other stations for new purposes: creating patterns or stacking structures. The lessons to come out of this are many: resourcefulness, creativity, the ability to identify and create patterns. These are soft skills that can’t really be imparted to students through instruction; they must be discovered. But that makes them no less critical to a child’s development.

“Play is often a good way to foster development in those skills, which are becoming more and more important in our economy now,” Datta says. “It’s not play for the sake of play; play is a great way for kids to learn. If kids can build the knowledge themselves, it’s much deeper.”

Datta points to schools like Riverside, a play/discovery-focused school started in Ahmedabad in 2001 by Kiran Bir Sethi, as another example of incremental change. In the years since its founding, Riverside has exported its curriculum to several other schools, established an education research centre, and trained outside teachers.

The national education system, that creaky beast, still has far to go before catching up to the value of learning through play, however. As the make-do result reached on the way to addressing more pressing needs, little (no) attention is paid to professional development and teaching methods. Public school teachers get a lot of flak, but they are victims of a larger problem, too. It’s almost understandable: When the most immediate concern, as it is here, is enough teachers and schools and bodies in seats to foster basic literacy across a huge, disparate population, letting kids run rampant in order to discover skills for themselves seems wasteful. Who has the time? India doesn’t!

But we do—the parents, aunties, uncles, dadis and dadus. Until the education system – both public and private – catches up, it’s our responsibility to make sure our kids get plenty of free time for play based learning. We need to stop insisting preschools be more academic, in a misguided (and possibly backfiring) attempt to ensure academic success at a later date. We need to stop overscheduling our kids; the leaders of tomorrow aren’t the 3-year-olds sitting for maths and language tuitions twice a week, nor the 4-year-olds sitting in daily Mandarin and piano lessons (having, of course, mastered maths and language arts the year before). And they aren’t the kids dazzled by electronic toys with lots of sounds and lights, either (“free play”, or child-initiated, unguided play is is the kind that allows learning by playing). Tomorrow’s leaders are the kids who explore, imagine, observe, imitate, memorize, strategize, empathize, try and fail, and try again while playing—maybe with something as simple as a paper bag and crayons.

Education is not simply knowledge; it is understanding and skill, too. A child may be taught to memorize the Pythagorean Theorem (a2 + b2 = c2) at an early age. But if she doesn’t understand why it works, and if she’s not allowed to develop curiosity, a sense of exploration, an analytical approach (all skills learned from play, not from flashcards), she’ll never appreciate how that simple equation helps uncover new planets—and she’ll never reach for the stars.


Written By Liesl Goecker

Liesl Goecker is The Swaddle’s managing editor.


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