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.       


Musings on the 2017 NARST Conference

Last week I attended the conference of the National Association of Research in Science Teaching or NARST in San Antonio, Texas. This is an annual conference that brings together researchers in science education from around the world. I am always surprised at the international aspect of this conference. A person is just as likely to… Continue Reading

Piaget’s Water Level Task

While it might seem obvious that living in a three-dimensional world would require a certain amount of innate spatial abilities, it is less obvious in how this spatial ability informs science and math learning. Current research in visuospatial ability does show that children who have an understanding of how shapes fit together, and can see… Continue Reading

Technology and its Relationship to Education

As humans, we tend to think of change as slow and plodding within a historic context. We can look back at our history and see the culmination of events over time and from that infer systemic cultural change. Pick a topic, it doesn’t matter which, history will show us the inevitable change that marks it… Continue Reading

The Advantage of Spatial Thinking in Science Education

Within our education system the steady, unwavering mantra of “reading, writing, and arithmetic” still holds as true as it did over a 100-years ago.  We continue to spend a tremendous amount of time, money, and effort developing a child’s mathematical and verbal ability.  Educational research shows without a doubt the importance of developing these two… Continue Reading

Science Education in the AIMS Center

Children arrive in the classroom not as empty vessels waiting to be filled but they come as “software” installed” individuals with their own ideas about how the world works, this is especially true in science education.  Children, from the youngest of ages, are “little scientists” playing, testing, and exploring the world around them hundreds of… Continue Reading

The Feynman Technique of Learning: Part II

In part I of my blog, “The Feynman Technique,” I began discussing Richard Feynman’s method for learning something new.  Feynman’s personal mode of learning was based on constructivism, building understanding from first principles.  As I mentioned, all of us at the AIMS Center have been tasked with learning new concepts outside of our field of… Continue Reading

The Mind of a Child

Understanding the mind of a child is a difficult if not impossible task and yet an elementary school teacher has the unenviable responsibility of doing just that in a classroom full of children. Historically, as far back as Aristotle, the human mind was thought to be an empty vessel just waiting to be filled with… Continue Reading