We only associate play with school when we talk about kindergarten kids. As kids move up to attend primary school, play is almost completely eliminated from their regular school hours.
School is structured, often focused on order; play, by definition, is not.
But within this paradox of play and school, educators can find meaningful learning opportunities, advancing students' academic skills as well as the social skills that will allow them to thrive in adulthood and enjoy their childhood now, according to researchers from Project Zero (PZ), a research center at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. In a collaborative study between Project Zero and the Lego Foundation, researchers have discovered five critical elements of play that are interconnected to learning effectively.
Playing is fun, that’s no doubt. In this segment, we define joy in a broad sense: as pleasure, enjoyment, motivation, thrill, and positive emotion - whether over a short period of time or over the entire play session. Joy is a key facet of play, especially because scientific evidence shows that people are more productive when they are in a positive mood.
Play is associated with increased dopamine levels in the brain, which is neurologically linked to enhanced memory, attention, mental shifting, creativity, and motivation.
Hence, as an integral characteristic of play, joy continues to help children and even adults move through their own learning process with ease.
We often picture “play” as an interesting, joyful experience, without much meaning; yet, there are many occasions when children engage in meaningful play. In the play, children often explore what they have seen and done, or noticed others do, as a way of grasping what it means. By doing so, they can express and expand their understanding.
When thinking about applying the importance of meaning to our conceptualization of learning through play, a particularly strong example comes from the work of Fisher, Hirsh-Pasek, Newcombe, and Golinkoff (2013). In this experiment, one group of children were told a new fact directly (e.g., a triangle has three sides, some triangles have sides of equal size although others do not). The other group was given a goal to “discover the secret of the shapes” without other instructions. Children in the latter condition, who had to think about the shapes in a more meaningful context, were not only better able to identify non-standard shapes (e.g., skewed triangles) but also retain this information a week later.
As such, learning through play can help children to tap into their existing knowledge and spur them to make connections, see relationships, and gain a deeper understanding of the complex world around them.
Bonawitz and colleagues discuss how adults can stimulate children’s curiosity and ability to explore themselves in a well-thought experiment. They discovered that if adults give children a certain toy and explained one or two functions of the toy, the children tended to just play with those functions that were introduced. However, if adults chose to NOT explain how the toy can be played with, and accidentally “revealed” a limited function, the kids were more likely to explore other hidden functions on their own.
This finding shows that if we put children in a less didactically structured environment, children can really thrive regarding intellectual curiosity and actively engage in the activity.
In fact, neuroscience finds that active and engaged involvement increases brain activation
related to agency, decision-making, and flow. It enhances memory encoding and retrieval processes that support learning. Full engagement in activity allows the brain to exercise networks responsible for executive control skills, such as pushing out distractions, which benefit short term and lifelong learning.
Because play is a scenario that provides children agency to direct their own activities and a safe space to experiment without risk, it encourages iterative and exploratory behavior. Indeed, many children start to form and test hypotheses through play, for example, a toddler playing with a puzzle and trying out different strategies or a young child testing different angles to shoot his marble as far as possible.
Iterative behavior is represented in pretend play. If a child is pretending that an empty cup contains tea, and then the cup tips over, they continue their game as if the table is now covered in tea. Do they really see and feel the table covered in tea? No, but they have already agreed on a set of rules at the beginning (that the empty cup has tea), which pushes them to reason and navigate following events within this set of rules. When children naturally engage in this type of reasoning during play, they are using the same set of skills that scholars and scientists use when they test theories by reasoning about what would follow if a given set of conditions were true.
Engaging in this type of iterative play not only helps children learn and understand more about the world around them, but also strengthens their critical thinking and scientific reasoning.
During play, children are able to share their minds and communicate through direct interaction. As they navigate through their playing experience, children are not only able to enjoy being with others, but also build a deeper understanding and more powerful relationships.
Social interaction while children are playing can be central to their critical thinking skill development. For example, as children play in groups, they can demonstrate abilities to delegate tasks among people in the group, which can later be transferred into teamwork skills. Other research also displays connections among children’s language abilities, creativity, and social play.
Looking through a neuroscientific lens, it seems like social interactions early in life can (1) help children develop healthy socio-emotional regulation and (2) promote plasticity in the brain to help cope with challenges.
In short, play can activate brain networks that protect children from long-term stress, which ideally work as a “padding” for them to dive in head-first in challenges later in life.