Play Can Be Hard Fun

In a previous blog post, I asked several questions related to the work of our early childhood mathematics team: What teacher knowledge is needed in order to enhance adult-child interactions and help children learn the most in play contexts? What experiences can support preschool teachers in deepening their knowledge of children’s mathematical thinking and the ways they can support children in play contexts? In this post, I’ll discuss a bit more about the potential for children to learn in these play contexts and share some recent thoughts in this direction.

In a recent conversation with Dr. Thiessen, our Director of Research here at the AIMS center, I discussed the ways in which we might begin to think about young children experiencing the necessary “puzzlement” that would lead to learning. Piaget describes this as the “disequilibrium” that one encounters when a particular action does not produce an expected outcome or result. In his book Radical Constructivism, Von Glasersfeld asked a similar question (paraphrased): “What are the situations in which the child’s schemes produce the perturbing outcomes that may impel it to learn?” This is an important consideration as we work with preschool children and explore what might be possible in the context of number development and play.

Recently, I read a fantastic article by Mitchel Resnik of the MIT Media Lab in which he discussed the work and ideas of Seymour Papert. Papert worked with Piaget at the University of Geneva from 1958 to 1963 and sought to change the way educators approached children’s thinking and problem solving. He had a keen interest in play situations that allowed children to press up against the boundaries of their own thinking. Resnik explains: “But for Seymour, play involved experimenting, taking risks, testing the boundaries, and iteratively adapting when things go wrong. He sometimes referred to this process as ‘hard fun.’” What might this “hard fun” look like in early learning?

Much of young children’s early development occurs through play, and this play often centers around physical materials that children can count. Opportunities present themselves for children to count blocks as they build, engage in imaginative play with toy animals, do puzzles, or play games with other children. In our work with children, we are currently exploring ways that children can use their existing number word sequences and counting schemes in play. But we’re also interested in ways these play activities can produce an appropriate level of “puzzlement” when a child’s actions don’t produce the outcome the child expected. We’ve got a few ideas in the works here and will be excited to share our progress.

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