There has been renewed interest among science educational researchers over the past decade in the power of “play” in the classroom. One of the researchers that I have been following is Dr. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a psychologist at Temple University. She is one of the founders of the Ultimate Block Party which brings together companies, makers, and educational researchers to cooperatively put together a series of events within a community to celebrate the science of play.
The importance of play in the classroom is not a new idea but the current environment of repetitive assessment has reduced a child’s opportunity for discovery, exploration, and self-directed learning. Cognitive research into play seems to indicate that it not only reduces stress but also can improve an individual’s working memory and self-regulation. So, research certainly seems to show that there should be a place for play in the classroom.
An increasingly popular idea in Europe is what is called nature schools, which are supported by local governments. The nature school idea originated in Australia by Lloyd Godson and is based around the idea of child-led learning. In this environment students are free set their own pace of discovery and take risks, which are not often possible in a traditional classroom. Children between three and six years of age attend a nature school once or twice a week. There is no set schedule and the students individually choose when they eat, play, or read. Students are free to roam the woods, play music, put up tents, or do crafts. Research has shown that outdoor nature schools can help students develop empathy, creativity, and innovation which are characteristics that are often being stunted in a traditional classroom environment.
It has been interesting to watch my three children as they have progressed through a traditional school system. Their interests are wide and varied, and yet all have learned what is needed to succeed in the classroom. But, without exception, none of my children would describe what they do at school as play. Their perception of school is that it is work. After all we, as parents, tell them to “work hard”, to “keep up the good work”, or “all your hard work will pay off!” Why should they think about it any other way? And what example do we set? We all get up, get dressed, and go to work day after day – whether that is a career for adults or school for the kids.
How different would it be if our children could think about going to school as being play? Just that wholesale change in regards to their Frame of Reference (FoR) could make a remarkable difference in not only their attitudes towards school but also their individual approach to learning.