Can We Measure Learning Through Play?

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This look of wonder and amazement in our students is what we strive for in each of our classes.

A question was posed on the LEGO Foundation Ideas Conference Forum: How can we measure learning through play?

The background of the question was:

“Measurements of learning is currently driven by a discussion of standardized tests in schools, which comes with a risk of teaching to the test, and not focusing on the soft skills with children’s motivation for learning and lifelong outcomes. Who are measurements actually for? And how can we provide new ways of measuring the critical soft skills, like collaboration, creativity and critical thinking, at the same time as making them relevant for the everyday situations in the home, and practices in the classroom?”

We at Play-Well have been asking, answering and re-asking this question for the past 18 years. After teaching over 500,000 kids, we have come to a few truths about play:

  • You can get kids excited about learning through play.
  • Children absorb and remember information when they are fully engaged, especially through play.
  • While it cannot replace scholastic practice in the classroom, play can be used to successfully explain and exemplify complicated academic concepts.

We know that play is powerful. We see it every day in our classes and hear it from parents. One parent relayed a story to us about a kindergartener: after one of our classes, who went to the playground, slid down the slide, and said to himself, “wow, this slide has a lot of friction!”

So, how do we measure this knowledge? That is where it gets tricky. Not only because the goals of each class are unique and difficult to pin down, but also because it forces us to confront an uncomfortable truth: we shouldn’t measure play.

Do we undermine the self-direction of play through measurement?

Play-Well Students

The entire premise of play is that it is self-directed and open-ended. Kids might play to explore the world, solve problems, or express who they are. These are only a few of the reasons children engage in play, and each has its merits in creating a well-rounded child.

Our friends in Montessori education have been strong advocates for self-direction in education: children may choose an activity and work on that activity until they feel they have completed it.  They are done when they believe they have completed it, without the interference of their teacher. They understand that self-direction empowers children and that confidence helps create life-long learners.

Any attempt to measure organic play limits the open-ended nature of it; and in doing so, we may unintentionally saddle children with adult expectations or ideas of what “success” is.

How effective would measurements on play be?

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We could come up with metrics to measure some aspects of play, but we must ask ourselves: would the data we received be worth the potential harm created in collecting it?

Our most satisfying times in the classroom, as instructors, are when our students have epiphany moments. We know that we can create the environment for those opportunities to happen, but it is out of our control as to when they happen.

Let’s revisit the kindergartener experiencing friction on the slide. We had reviewed that term numerous times through playing that week, so at some point it resonated with him. How do you measure that?  When did the connection between our class and the slide occur?  Did he have the epiphany on the slide or somewhere else? Does it matter? Furthermore, in peppering the child with questions attempting to solve the mystery, we ruin the positive association that child had with learning about friction. In the journey from qualitative play to quantitative measurement, the true magic of play will be lost in translation. It will fall short of what is possible if we just allow kids to explore the world for themselves, at their own pace, and trust that learning will happen.

A teacher in the U.S. recently wrote a resignation letter, stating that she needed to step down because she believed her profession no longer existed.  With so much of her job being about standardized tests and constant measurement, her ability to actually be a teacher, allowed to play and experiment to get her kids excited by learning, was gone.  By forcing common standards of teaching in the U.S., the powers that be had stifled this teacher’s ability to do her job in a way that spoke to her children.

In the play setting, who is the better teacher? The adult or the child?

Errol Teaching

So, given all the risk, why would we evaluate play or use play as a measurement tool? We love our children and we recognize play as nourishment for young minds. We want to support that in any way possible and we want that support to be based in peer-reviewed study. This is where we hit the crux of the questions posed: who are measurements actually for?

In simplistic terms, measurements are for adults, and play is for kids.

If you were to ask a child at play, “are you having fun?” She would say, “yes.”  If you asked her to articulate why she is having fun, you’ll probably hear, “I don’t know, it just is.”  She might not fully understand why she does what she does, or what she is learning when she plays, but it is happening. Children submit their bodies, their minds and their spirits to whatever creative world they are traveling through when they play and they do so without judgment or expectation. You can see it in the way their limbs hang when they are being carried to bed after a long day of play: that child gave all of himself to his adventure today. The fullness with which children embrace and indulge in their experiences is something from which we adults can learn. So let us take an opportunity to embrace the process of play without analysis of the results. Can play be a valuable learning tool or method of measurement? Yes. How can we prove it? We shouldn’t bother trying. Or as a child would say, “it just is.”

What will save us? Perhaps Play.

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Ken Robinson, in his lecture about schools killing creativity, explains how the musical Cats almost didn’t happen. The most successful musical of all time only happened because the creator was pulled out of a regular classroom and identified by a teacher as being a dancer, instead of someone who just couldn’t sit still in class. Ken explained that world-changing potential is sitting in our classrooms, but we need to allow kids to play if they are going to understand who they want to be. We as adults must exercise some restraint and allow children to experience that process uninhibited by our desire to understand it. We must treat play as sacred and do all that we can to keep it whole. This is how we can advocate for children and also for ourselves. Because the next great solution, the life-changing invention, the cure for cancer–these things won’t come from a mind that can merely think outside the box; they will come from a mind that thinks the box doesn’t exist.

Contributors To This Article: Erik Olson, Maddy Gabor, & Jeff Harry

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