Freedom to Learn

The roles of play and curiosity as foundations for learning.

Can Lego Help Return Play to Children’s Lives and Education?

The Lego Foundation wants to promote playful learning worldwide. How might they?

Throughout the world, wherever schools exist (and now they exist almost everywhere), learning and play tend to be viewed as different, almost opposite things.  Learning is understood to be what children do in school. It is work, directed by teachers and motivated by rewards and punishments that teachers administer. Play is what children do out of school when they don’t have other obligations and are free to do what they want. Play is commonly regarded as, at best, recreation—something that “re-creates,” or refreshes children after a hard day or week of school, so they can get back to the serious work of learning.

As you know if you are a regular reader of this blog, one of my consistent themes is that creation of a dichotomy between learning and play is artificial and harmful. Play, in fact, is nature’s means of ensuring that children will learn, joyfully and on their own initiatives, the skills that are most crucial for a happy and productive life.

I was delighted, therefore, to receive an invitation to speak at a worldwide conference on play and learning sponsored by the Lego Foundation, the charitable wing of the corporation that makes those colorful plastic interlocking blocks. The two-day conference was held, last month, at Lego headquarters in Billund, Denmark. It’s purpose, according to statements issued by the organizers, was to “redefine play and reimagine learning.” I’m still not sure what was meant by “redefine play” (I heard no discussion, except my own, about the meaning of the term play at the conference), but, very clearly, this was a conference aimed at presenting and generating ideas about the connection of play with learning. According to the organizers, the conference marks a change in the Foundation’s mission, from that of donating products to that of promoting playful learning throughout the world.

I was both encouraged and discouraged by the conference.  I’ll start with what was encouraging.

The encouraging aspect of the conference

There were at least 260 attendees at the conference, from all over the world, from developing countries as well as developed ones. Each of these attendees had been individually invited, on the basis of their history of concern with play and learning. At one lunch at the conference I found myself sitting, quite by chance, at a table with seven other attendees—one from India, two from Mexico, one from Switzerland, one from Denmark, and two from the US. All were talking, quite enthusiastically, about their own attempts, in their own countries, to make education more playful and natural. I was struck by the similarity of concerns among these seven different people from five quite different nations.

I was pleased by some of the language I heard at the conference. At one of the general sessions, the speaker referred to the “huge gap that exists between educational policy, worldwide, and what we know about how children best learn.” Everyone in the audience seemed to agree with this view.  Everyone also seemed to agree that we need to spread the word about how children best learn and need to work to change educational policy to accord with what we know. 

One of the sessions I attended was about how to use the media to change people’s opinions about play and learning. One of the leaders of that session, I was delighted to see, was a woman who is currently making a film on the value of play, for public television in the United States.

At more than one session I heard the word “toxic” used to describe the educational environment of typical schools. At least one speaker noted that children today are considered “broken” and in need of fixing, when, in fact, it is their educational environment that is broken and needs fixing.  On the surface, at least, this sounded like radical talk; that is, it seemed to suggest that we need to get to the root of the problem and transform our educational institutions from ground up to be consistent with what we know about children’s natural ways of learning.

The discouraging aspect of the conference

But now I turn to the discouraging part. Despite some of the radical rhetoric, most of the programs that were described and the concrete ideas that were discussed were anything but radical. As I said, there was no real discussion of the meaning of “play” (at least none that I heard), and I wish there had been, because many speakers used the term to refer to activities that neither I nor most children would class as play. They used the term to describe activities that teachers could bring into the classroom for the explicit purpose of teaching certain lessons, lessons that are part of the school curriculum and would ultimately be measured by scores on tests. If we have to have top-down schools, in which tasks and learning objectives are controlled from above by teachers (or above them by principals or by state requirements), then I’m not necessarily against such activities, as they may make school more enjoyable for some. But we’re confusing matters if we refer to such activities as play.

Play, by my definition, is, first and foremost, activity that is self-chosen and self-directed. It is activity that you are always free to quit. Activities that are chosen by teachers and directed or evaluated by teachers are not play. Most play researchers outside of the educational world would not label such activities as play, nor would most children. In fact, in a research study conducted many years ago, kindergarten children were presented with pictures of various activities and were asked to indicate which ones were play and which were not.[1] Consistently, they selected as play those activities that appeared to be initiated and controlled by the children themselves, and they labeled as not play those activities that appeared to be chosen and directed by a teacher, even if those activities seemed to be fun. So, for example, children chasing one another freely, of their own accord, were playing, but children running a relay race organized by the teacher were not. Children constructing something with blocks, with no adult in sight, were playing, but those constructing something with blocks while a teacher looked on were not.

Here’s the insight that the great majority at the conference were not ready to accept and probably had given little thought to: Given appropriate environmental conditions, children can and will educate themselves very well through their own, self-directed play (real play) and exploration.  We don’t need top-down, coercive schools. This has been proven, repeatedly, through the experiences of democratic schools, where children are truly in charge of their own activities and learning, and of homeschooling families who have adopted the approach commonly called “unschooling,” where there is no imposed curriculum and children learn through their self-chosen, self-directed activities. What children need, to become well educated, is not coercion or imposed curricula or imposed exercises that mascarade as play, but opportunity. Such opportunity includes exposure to the skills and ideas that are important to their society and lots of opportunity to play with those skills and ideas, in their own ways, on their own time course. As I have described in previous posts (and more fully in my recent book), we can provide those opportunities to all, at less trouble and cost than we currently spend on coercive schools.

My thoughts about what the Lego Foundation might do

As an invited speaker at the conference, I was permitted to nominate several possible attendees. One of my nominees, who was invited and who attended, was Nina Knudson, from Roskilde, Denmark. Nina is a young woman, 18 years old, who is a graduate of the most radically alternative school in Denmark—called simply (in English translation) the Democratic School. At this school nobody forced her to learn anything, nobody presented her with a curriculum, nobody tested her, and nobody except her chosen playmates advised her how she should play.  She played and explored with other kids, in age-mixed groups, and devoted herself seriously, on her own initiative, to activities that particularly interested her. Nobody who has the pleasure of meeting this articulate, informed, confident young woman would question her education.  She is now, among other things, a leader in the movement to make democratic schooling legal in Denmark and other European countries, through the organization known as EUDEC (the European Democratic Education Community).

I made a point, at the conference, of introducing Nina to other attendees whenever I had a chance.  I could see that the experience of meeting her was confusing to many of them.  They were at the conference in support of learning through play, but here was a young woman who really had learned through play—through true, self-directed play, without coercion—and they found it hard to believe.  I wish Nina had been invited as one of the principal speakers.  It would have generated some deeper thought not only about play, but about human potential and how that potential best develops.

Now, I don’t expect the Lego Foundation to pick up the banner of democratic schooling. It can’t.  Like all charities associated with big corporations, the Lego Foundation is fundamentally conservative. It can’t attach itself to or provide financial support for causes that seem radical, maybe crazy, to the general public. It can talk about big ideas and transformation of education, as long as the language is sufficiently vague and the projects supported are not fundamentally transformative. The Foundation can't support projects that aim to turn things upside down from how they are today.

Promoting educational choice

But here’s something that I think the Foundation can do, if it wants. It can put its name and perhaps some funding behind the idea of educational choice. It doesn't have to come out in favor of democratic schools as a preferred option, in order to suggest that this should be one of the options that families can legally choose. Right now, throughout most of Europe and much of the rest of the world, families cannot choose the self-directed option unless they do it underground. The compulsory schooling laws define schooling in such a way that children are compelled to follow an imposed curriculum rather than learn in their own chosen ways and at their own pace, and parents have no say on the matter. School inspectors in some countries have acknowledged that children in the democratic schools they have inspected are happy, healthy, and learning beautifully, but they have had to shut the schools down, nevertheless, because they don’t conform to the letter of the law (for more on this topic, see here).

Democracy has been coming along slowly throughout the developed world. At present, the least democratic institution in most Western nations is the educational system. The Lego Foundation might well put some of its might behind the idea that educational choice should be one of the democratic rights. Democracy is founded on the idea that people can be trusted. Lego doesn’t have to say that children should be accorded the right to choose their own education; it would be enough for them to say that parents should be accorded the right to choose their children’s route to education, as long as the children are not abused and are happy, healthy, and provided with adequate learning opportunities.

Promoting play outside of school

I was disappointed, at the conference, by the almost exclusive focus on school learning and the near absence of talk about play and learning outside of school. Learning and school are so entwined in people’s minds—even for this selected group (or maybe especially for them)—that there was a strong tendency to overlook the clear fact that all of us, no matter how much schooling we’ve had, have learned most of what we know outside of school. 

When I was a child in the 1950s, most children had ample time for play outside of school. The school year (in the US) was 5 weeks shorter then than it is now; the school day was also shorter (and contained far more time for recess); and homework was almost nonexistent in elementary school and minimal in secondary school. Out of school, we had some chores and some of us had part-time jobs, but for the most part we were free to play—for hours every day after school, all weekend long, and all summer long.

Today, throughout the developed world, children have much less time out of school than we did, and even that time is often filled with school-like activities. Pickup games and hobbies have been replaced by adult-directed sports and out-of-school classes. Parents have become convinced that children’s unsupervised play is either a waste of time or an outright danger to them, or both. These changes have deprived children of opportunities to learn the most important lessons of all—the lessons of how to take control of their own lives, choose their own paths, solve their own problems, and get along with peers as equals. None of these lessons can be taught in school; they can only be learned in play, true play, directed by the players themselves.

This, I think, is something that nearly all of the participants at the conference could agree on—children need lots of time and opportunity to play freely out of school. That’s an idea that almost everyone can get behind once it is explained. It’s not a radical idea, but it’s an idea that has been buried in the craziness of the modern educational frenzy. I’d love to see the Lego Foundation put its weight behind that idea and promote projects designed to allow children to play freely, without adult interference, outside of school.

I've written this essay not just as one more in my Freedom to Learn series, but also as my response to the Lego Foundation's request for feedback that will help them in their future endeavors. So here is my feedback. Do what you can to promote educational choice, so those families who want it can allow their children to educate themselves freely and truly playfully. And, do what you can to bring play back to children's lives outside of school. This means pushing for less time in school, not more, and creating safe places for children to play outside of school, without adult interference. If you can help move either of these agendas along and thereby help reverse the current trends toward increasingly restrictive laws about school and less time for play, you will be doing the world's children a great favor.

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And now, to readers: What do you think? What might the Lego Foundation or other big corporations with money and a vested interest in play do to make life better for children? This blog is a forum for discussion, and your stories, comments, and questions are valued and treated with respect by me and other readers. As always, I prefer if you post your thoughts and questions here rather than send them to me by private email. By putting them here, you share with other readers, not just with me. I read all comments and try to respond to all serious questions, if I feel I have something useful to add to what others have said. Of course, if you have something to say that truly applies only to you and me, then send me an email.

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For much more about nature’s design for children’s education, see Free to Learn.

See also the website of the European Democratic Education Community.

Reference

King, N. R. (1982). “Work and play in the classroom.” Social Education, 46: 110-113.

Addendum, May 16, 2014

Andrew Bollington, Global Head of Research and Learning at the LEGO Foundation, sent me the note, below,to share with readers.  I hope some of you will enter this competition or nominate others for it.  It's a great opportunity.

"Peter, Thanks for your response and further suggestions; I'll follow these up.  We also really appreciate your feedback and very much look forwards to taking the conference further next year.

"People reading may be interested in the "Re-imagine Learning" competition that we announced with Ashoka at the IDEA Conference.  It's open to all individuals, organizations, and partnerships from around the world who are using play or playful approaches to enrich learning.  Through the competition we aim to discover great examples, then to help learn, share, promote and nurture these to create many more opportunities for children to play.  If any of your readers are directly involved in a project or would like to nominate one, then they should visit <A HREF="http://www.changemakers.com/play2learn#">www.changemakers.com/play2learn#</A> to find out more."

 Andrew Bollington

Global Head of Research and Learning
LEGO Foundation

Peter Gray, Ph.D., research professor at Boston College, is author of the newly published book Free to Learn (Basic Books) and Psychology (a textbook now in its 6th edition).

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