Papert’s Idea of Play in the Classroom

The power of play is a foundational idea in education, especially in regards to young children. It is something I have been thinking about a lot lately within the context of spatial learning. Seymour Papert, who passed away in 2016, was a visionary in the field of education and was a huge proponent of the importance of play in the classroom. Papert was a mathematician, computer scientist, and educator who collaborated for a time with Jean Piaget at the University of Geneva in Switzerland.  For most of his career he worked closely with Mitch Resnick at the MIT Media Labs. He is considered one of the leaders of the constructionist movement in education and was a pioneer in artificial intelligence. A man truly ahead of his time, many of the popular ideas in education such as problem-based learning, the significance of student collaboration, and how technology is changing student learning environments were developed out of ideas from Seymour Papert and the MIT Media Labs.

Papert strongly believed in the transformative power of play both in and out of the classroom environment. Interestingly enough, the word “play” often has many different and varied meanings when described by people within the educational community. Play in the classroom is often described negatively as carefree, chaotic, and without structure or substance. But Papert, on the other hand, would go on to describe the more positive driven idea of “hard play”. He believed that children should be challenged through discovery and exploration of real world problems that have a personal significance to them. That the act of play through discovery and design is essential for developing a child’s passion for problem solving and love of learning.

This is an idea that resonates deeply within me. Educating kids shouldn’t be about rote learning or a teacher’s direct transfer of information.  It should be about getting kids to fall passionately in love with learning new ideas on a daily basis. We often, as teachers, are so caught up in the minutia of state standards, content coverage, and classroom management that we sometimes forget that so many of these things we consider important become much easier if a child has developed a passion for learning. This sounds easy, doesn’t it? Don’t get me wrong, I am not condoning the idea of a “magic wand” that will suddenly transform education. There are too many variables involved in children’s learning to be able to find a simple solution to such a complex problem. But I believe that Papert’s vision of connecting play and passion in the classroom is timeless and is an idea worthy of pursuit within education.       

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