Learning to Play and Playing to Learn

Most of us learn to play but few of us have learnt through play.  Learning is thought to be serious intellectual work and we cannot play with it.  Play is viewed as a waste of time. At best it is seen as a means of relaxation and regeneration for one to undertake the rigor of learning. None of us agree that time spent playing is the time spent learning. We may be shocked if we are told that play is really a way of learning.   The play has been put on the periphery in most teaching and learning environments. Most of us believe that play is a distraction. To our surprise, the national policy of education advocates play-based learning particularly at the foundational and preparatory stage of education (what we call primary school). Play can stimulate thinking outside the box or colouring outside the lines that is a sign  of creativity. Besides, play naturally builds social competence and self-confidence.  Some scholars even indicate that play-based interventions can heal children who have emotionally challenging experiences.  Play indeed is critical for the growth in self-regulation and the ability to manage one’s behaviour and emotions.

Play adds fun and pleasure to learning.  Children spontaneously learn to count while they play. The play-context also draws them to apply ideas and foster the use of imagination. Play does promote learning and hence, guided play is a powerful learning tool. Therefore, the challenge before us is to discern the condition under which we can use play as an optimal learning strategy. Careful use of play can produce lasting learning outcomes in our children. It becomes a holistic approach as it simultaneously promotes aesthetic, physical, emotional, social and cognitive growth. Human development Psychologists like Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky stressed the essential role of play for cognitive development. Recognizing the vital development of play in the development of a child, we can find several playschools that use play as the primary mode of teaching and learning in their classrooms and conduct the school on the basis of play-based curricula. It has been discovered that play-based learning increases the motivation of the students and produces greater learning outcomes in both literacy and numeracy than other pedagogies that are merely intellectual in character.

We were told that all work and no play make Jack a dull boy. But play-based learning pedagogies inverts this old adage and we come to bridge the divide between play and work. Play can provide a rejuvenating time between demanding cognitive tasks. But play can also stimulate learning.  Playing being natural to children becomes the best way to transform learning into an enjoyable engaging experience.  Creative play is best employed in the outdoor natural environment where everything that exists offers itself for the purpose of learning and also can foster care and stewardship of nature.  Teachers can also use other play zones to stimulate learning.   To let play become the mainstay of learning we need spacious halls to allow free movements and not congested classrooms.  Play-based education does require play-conducive environment or infrastructure that provides free play space for our children.

Play can help us achieve our academic goals. One can learn mathematics, science, and social sciences through play. Play can easily include counting, matching, sorting out of items that need mathematical skills.  One does use additions and subtractions while playing.  In fact, mathematics taught through a play-based approach may decrease the emotion of fear that is surrounding this important subject. Children are naturally curious. Science can be learnt by exploring nature and drawing familiarity with the living world.  Simple playful tasks like an observation of ants, earthworms, or birds can trigger several learnings about their natural habitats as well as their food habits.  They can get the children to feed birds and teach them about food. Play can thus be employed to learn science.  Role-plays can be used to teach children social sciences. The children can play shopkeepers or customers and thus learn simple things about economics. Play can be also employed to identify sounds and link them with letters and words. This may be achieved through wordplay games.

Setting up play-based teaching-learning pedagogies is a challenge.  It demands imaginative creativity on the part of the teachers. It requires us to set up not just play zones but also set up play materials that may include cards that bestow different tasks that can be given to the children  at random.  There can be cards that produce wordplay as well as other items that play needs may include toys, building blocks, puzzles, problem-solving sheets, colours, etc. There are several resource-books that can guide the teachers to effectively employ play-based strategies in their classrooms.

There is no exact equipment for play-based learning. It has to be creatively developed by the school and the teachers involved.  These teachers have a huge challenge to strive to make the learning experience more interesting and enjoyable. Play is a fantastic tool to achieve these goals.  At a time when play-based learning is going to become one of the mainstays of our school education as directed by the NEP 2020, it is important that we draw our attention to the power that play has to generate learning outcomes. Play involves the entire person and is a multi-sensory and hence makes a lasting impact on the children’s learning outcomes. Therefore, it is all-important to embrace play-based teaching-learning strategies alongside other experiential and discovery-based pedagogies. There is a growing acceptance of play theory and learning outcomes.  The time has certainly arrived and we cannot wait to learn to make play a way of learning in our schools.

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Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

- Fr Victor Ferrao