Why play is integral to learning and development

Why play is integral to learning and development Cover Image

Play is a concept that many educators tend to ignore when it comes to rote and academic learning. Here’s why it’s important for our kids.

When I was a child, my father once asked me where we ought to hang the key rack at home. “In the bedroom” – I said somewhat aimlessly, referring to the room favoured by Indian families, to store precious things. That day I learnt that key racks actually ought to go by the main door, where you need to see the keys before you leave home.

This was perhaps my first lesson in category-errors.

We create categories to help us organise information – this helps us process information and make quicker decisions in daily life. Quite often, however, the same information may just as well belong to other categories. A category error occurs when we use the wrong category to determine an action.

Sometimes the outcome of error prone thinking is inconsequential, such as when a child assumes for a while that the moon is literally made of cheese. This sort of thinking is corrected as soon as the child learns the difference between the literal and metaphorical.

On the other hand, errors are also costly and sometimes have far-reaching consequences.

All work and no play – makes Jack a dull boy

Consider the term – play. Many people consider play to be in a separate category, from – learn (as though they were mutually exclusive.)

Play – is in fact, a method of learning, and by many accounts, a highly superior form of learning, as has been proven over and over again, and yet, parents and educators make critical decisions based on this fallacy.

Perhaps we commit this error because we impose the unfortunate framework of our own adult lives on children, often without realising it.

As adults, we see play as a sort of luxury that is apart from work, while work becomes the cornerstone of our lives. Work we feel is the serious stuff, and play… is fun – although somewhat tangential to life’s purpose.

Play_01

Image courtesy: An Ordinary Miracle

In hindsight, it is easy to see why we commit such mistakes, and perhaps for adults, it is far too late to change our perceptions of play and work. However, allowing the mistake to affect the learning ability of a child can have massive repercussions.

Neurons that fire together wire together

Earlier, I had written about the physiological differences between the developing brain of a child and the adult brain. An evolutionary marvel of information optimsation, the brain in childhood absorbs as much information as it needs, and just before the child reaches puberty, starts to eliminate redundant synapses. (A process called synaptic pruning.) The brain prunes connections that it doesn’t need to keep the ones that are used the most.

In other words, the child either uses it or loses it.

Play_Brain_malleability

Image courtesy: Harvard University

This is precisely why play is such a crucial part of learning during early childhood. Play allows children to make far richer connections about the world than the binary, one-connection answers in textbooks.

If our own schooling systems had recognised the importance of brain architecture in early childhood learning, perhaps we would be far more intelligent and empathetic, more forgiving of the world around us today.

There is, however, every possibility that our children can still aspire to it.

End Notes

I am part of a team of educators behind a teaching methodology called Playjam. Playjam is a micro-schooling method for play based learning in early childhood, involving children, parents and educators to form small, tightly knit learning clubs.

You can sign up your child for the club here: Sign-up form

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