Learning from Others – Deena Weisberg

Learning through play is an idea that is gaining much popularity in the field of education. Especially for young children, the use of play can harness a power of engagement that comes naturally to children. The characteristics of play that are productive for learning can prove to be an essential element in ensuring deep and enjoyable experiences for children. In this blog, I will present a short biography of a leading researcher in this field, ­Dr. Deena Weisberg, and a summary of the interview I conducted with her.

Deena Weisberg is a Senior Fellow in the Department of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. She earned her Ph.D. in Psychology from Yale University and received postdoctoral training at Rutgers University and Temple University. Currently, she is the Director of the Cognition and Development Lab on campus. Her early work focused on the development of imaginative cognition and the role that the imagination plays in learning. Since then she has broadened her work to the aspect of guided play in education as well as the nature of young children’s interactions with pretend games, fictional stories, and hypothetical scenarios. Weisberg currently teaches two courses in the department of Psychology – Cognitive Development and Seminar in Developmental Psychology.

The interview began with introductions, and my first question was one of curiosity ­-  How did you get interested in studying play? Dr. Weisberg explained that initially, she became interested in studying how and why children pretend and imagine. The idea of children’s minds traveling outside of their world intrigued her. Much of Deena Weisberg’s work in the area of play deals with a term called “Guided Play.” For my next question, I asked if she would talk a little more about what is meant by that term. She explained that the two main characteristics of guided play are as follows:

1) The child is in charge of a situation that is both natural and intrinsic

2) The adult present helps shape the child’s decision without taking away the control

Dr. Weisberg continued by describing how she sees the word “playful” as an adjective rather than a noun. She cautioned that play should not be forced even on teachers. “Asking teachers to do something that feels awkward is not gratifying. ‘Guided Play’ is about open-­ended questions as well as open-­ended activities.” Her final words of advice in this area were that “we need to trust children more.”

My final questions had to do with the age groups she has worked with, as well as the differences she has noted in gender, and finally what projects she is working on now. Dr. Weisberg has worked mostly with preschool children from the ages of three to five years old. She said that in the area of play or its outcomes for learning she had not noted any gender differences. Finally, she is currently interested in how stories can be used to teach concepts – including mathematics and science. Dr. Weisberg shared an example of a study that showed positive results when a set of vocabulary words were taught through a story and then the words were revisited through guided play experiences. Currently, Deena Weisberg has about 30 ongoing research projects, and so I am quite honored that she shared some of her time with me.

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