Playing to win

“You be the cat.  I’ll be the dog.  Let’s go on an adventure!” : The sweet sound of a preschool child who has passed the ‘terrible twos,’ where they learn that they were a separate individual, and moved into the pleasurable discovery of fantasy.  It can bring a smile to the mundane and world-weary face of any adult, and perhaps just a hint of longing to once again see life through carefree and magical eyes.  To the grown-up, such games may seem like nonsense.  In the modern, full-on workaday world, anything that is not seen as directly productive can be labeled with unhelpful misnomers like ‘downtime.’

But what is the importance of play and learning through play in early stage development for children, and how can it help them grow into the successful adults of tomorrow?  Indeed, what are post-compulsory educators and trainers now learning from childhood play and assimilating into adult education?

Plato observed, ‘Do not keep children to their studies by compulsion but by play.’

From birth through the first few years of life, a child is constantly learning about their environment through all senses, but especially through touch and movement in physical space.  Concepts of distance (I can touch the chair but not a cloud), laws of the natural world such as gravity, hot and cold, light and dark, and the feel of textures and surfaces are understood.  Hand-eye and other motor co-ordination skills are developed, along with a rudimentary grasp of verbal and non-verbal communication.  According to Neuroscientist  Eric Chudler Ph.d, executive director of the ‘Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering in Seattle Washington,’ the brain grows at an amazing rate during development with up to 250,000 neurons added every minute at certain stages.  It continues to grow for a few years after birth and is about 80% of adult size by age 2.

Educational luminary, Maria Montessori, referred to young children as ‘Cera Molle’ or ‘Soft Wax,’ but noted that it was the job of children to shape themselves and not that of the teacher.  ‘Play is the work of the child.’ – Maria Montessori.

Austrian philosopher and founder of Waldorf Education, Rudolf Steiner, held similar views.  He saw the development from early childhood to the end of adolescence as three bands of seven years.  Steiner believed that human beings were in possession of twelve senses, including thought, language, warmth, balance, movement, life, and the individuality of the other, along with the basic five.  In early childhood education he encouraged play with toys of a more nondescript nature, to allow the child to develop their imagination.  Dolls without predefined facial expressions, wooden blocks, and natural items such as pine cones give (in the Waldorf view) greater scope for play and mental development.

How many parents have pulled their hair out after purchasing an expensive present for a young child, only to watch them play with the packaging and turn it into a million wonderful imaginary things while the pre-defined toy sits there?

The process of formal learning in a Steiner school does not commence until age six.  In 2009 the UK’s Guardian Newspaper published an article, after the Cambridge Review of primary education drew similar conclusions to what has always been a fundamental tenet of Waldorf educational philosophy.  In the article it states, ‘We are convinced that a later start to formal learning allows children to experience the joy of learning without unhealthy stress or the risk of early burn-out.’

Burn-out may not be a word many associate with young children, but journalist and slow-movement spokesperson, Carl Honoré, has found otherwise.  In his general work ‘In Praise Of Slow’ (2004) and its specific follow-up about rescuing children from the culture of hyper-parenting ‘Under Pressure’ (2008) he paints a graphic picture of how over-scheduling and pushing for early academic achievement can have a devastating effect on the health of young learners.  Fortunately he offers many wonderful alternatives.

Founder of analytical psychology, Carl Jung, once observed: ‘The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct.’

But is there a place for play in adult education too? Nicola Whitton, director of the ‘Centre for Research in Technology, Innovation and Play for Learning’ believes so, and she’s certainly not alone.  On her site ‘Play Think Learn’ she notes, ‘Games are good for learning because they a) support active learning; b) increase engagement; c) provide playful spaces to learn from failure.’

In a May 2012 ‘Training’ magazine article, Julie Brink of viaLearning writing more specifically on the potential corporate benefits of computer gaming versus traditional e-Learning said, ‘Gaming can improve problem-solving, creativity, risk assessment, and risk taking.’

Human beings learn to experience the world, find out about their identities and develop a natural curiosity that can lead to a life-long love of learning through early childhood play.  Perhaps when in future thinking that a young child is ‘only playing,’ there is room for reflection on the considerable amount of productive work that is being achieved in their life.

If the game of life really is considered to be a game, then surely it follows that one must PLAY to win?