Research shows that when kids have fun, they learn more. Time for cities to step up.
At a recent conference for educators, some attendees were surprised to find that one activity involved “free-playing” with colorful scraps of paper. They had complete freedom to build, rip, fold, and do whatever they wanted with the scraps. After five minutes of free-play, moderator Ben Mardell from Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero polled the participants—many described the experience as “fun” or “engaging.”
The concept of “playful learning” isn’t new. “Play is not where you build ‘soft skills’ or ‘21st-century skills,’” said Dr. Jack Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. “The skills gained through play are as relevant now as they have always been.”
Science continues to show that there is much to be gained from innovative new methods of teaching, including the more hands-off approach that playful learning takes.
Karen Walker, EdD, literacy consultant and National-Louis University instructor, points out that “there is long-standing evidence that playful learning can influence the way children develop into adults.”
“Leapfrogging” Via Playful Learning
For years, early childhood researchers have preached the value of play in early childhood development. “Play is a natural way to develop motor, cognitive, social and emotional skills,” said Marc Fuster Rabella, an analyst for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Directorate for Education and Skills. “The challenge for educators, then, is to design comprehensive teaching practices that can create spaces for students’ agency, curiosity and enjoyment to flourish. In this way, teaching would support meaningful learning and student well-being.”
Dr. Rebecca Winthrop, co-director of the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution, states that playful learning that allows students to experiment helps them understand concepts and interact with peers. Such experiences “are an essential component to leapfrogging in education because, without them, young people will not be able to develop the full breadth of competencies and skills they need to thrive in a fast-changing world.”
The argument goes that physicality plays a key role in bridging early critical thinking skills to practical applications. The Brookings Institution summarized a report from its 2020 policy series, providing a working definition of what constitutes “playful learning”:
Children learn best when education is active via an approach that supports inquiry and reflection; engaging; meaningful, so children can connect new information to prior knowledge; socially interactive with adult-facilitated peer collaboration; iterative, with opportunities to form, test, and revise hypotheses; and joyful.
Winthrop offers two examples of effective playful learning: “project-based learning,” in which children investigate a hypothetical problem, and “personal learning experiences,” where students establish an objective and teachers act as guides. “Numerous studies show that these types of pedagogies result in better student outcomes than more traditional teaching practices.”
A 2018 study published by Brookings Institution senior fellow Dr. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and others shows that children in lower-income communities often fall short of their more privileged peers’ academic achievements due to lack of resources and reduced early exposure to basic spatial, numerical, and language concepts that can spark early critical thinking and play a major role in adulthood. The same study highlights the potential for playful learning features to do double duty by not only supporting education, but also by reigniting a disinvested public.
The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs estimated in 2018 that by 2050, around 70% of the world’s population will live in cities. A Brookings Institution report, however, concludes that “many cities continue to ignore the needs of children and their caregivers.” Consequently, the institution created the Urban Play Framework, which advocates “the design of play-based interventions in urban spaces to maximize the chance for children to engage in play as part of their daily routine.”
The Seriousness of Play
Beloved children’s author Philip Pullman wrote, “True education flowers at the point when delight falls in love with responsibility.” Playful learning, research shows us, is one of the most natural ways to bridge the gap between delight and responsibility.¬
Fuster Rabella mused that “The parallels between play and the conditions under which people naturally learn hold a key idea for education: we might take learning more seriously if it felt more like play.”
In my next post, we’ll trace how Hirsh-Pasek’s lifework migrated to some of the Chicago region’s most deserving communities via Metropolitan Family Services. The post will feature case studies of three Playful Learning Landscapes projects—photos of them open and close this post—in the Chicago region.
Contact us to learn more about playful learning spaces or comment below to share your thoughts on this post.
Sources + Additional Reading
Butterfield, Timothy. “The power of playful learning.” Harvard Graduate School of Education (blog), October 22, 2019. https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/19/10/power-playful-learning.
Hadani, Helen Shwe and Vey, Jennifer S. “Moving forward together to build more playful cities: introducing the Playful Learning Landscapes City Network.” Brookings (blog), January 26, 2021. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/education-plus-development/2021/01/26/moving-forward-together-to-build-more-playful-cities-introducing-the-playful-learning-landscapes-city-network/.
Hadani, Helen Shwe and Jennifer S. Vey. “The Urban Play Framework: an approach for understanding the play experience in cities.” Brookings (blog), January 27, 2021. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/the-avenue/2021/01/27/the-urban-play-framework-an-approach-for-understanding-the-play-experience-in-cities/.
Hassinger-Das, Brenna, Andres S. Bustamante, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff. “Learning landscapes: playing the way to learning and engagement in public spaces.” Education Sciences Journal, May 23, 2018. https://kathyhirshpasek.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/9/2018/06/Learning-Landscapes-Playing-the-way-to-learning-and-engagement.pdf.
Hirsh-Pasek, Kathy, Elias Blinkoff, Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, and Helen Shwe Hadani. “Playful learning and 21st-century skills line the path to education reform: our responses to your questions.” Brookings (blog), February 17, 2021. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/education-plus-development/2021/02/17/playful-learning-and-21st-century-skills-line-the-path-to-education-reform-our-responses-to-your-questions/.
Hirsh-Pasek, Kathy. “Playful Learning Landscapes.” Accessed March 25, 2021. https://kathyhirshpasek.com/learning-landscapes/.
Rabella, Mark Fuster. “Why learning should be more playful.” OECD Education and Skills Today, June 18, 2019. https://oecdedutoday.com/playful-learning-school-student-education/.
Rice, Louis. “Playful learning.” Journal for Education in the Built Environment, 4:2, 94-108, DOI: 10.11120/jebe.2009.04020094. https://doi.org/10.11120/jebe.2009.04020094.
United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2019). World Urbanization Prospects: The 2018 Revision (ST/ESA/SER.A/420). New York: United Nations. https://population.un.org/wup/Publications/Files/WUP2018-Report.pdf.
Walker, EdD, Karen. “The power of playful learning in early childhood education.” TEPSA (blog). Accessed March 25, 2021. https://www.tepsa.org/resource/the-power-of-playful-learning-in-early-childhood-education/.
Winthrop, Rebecca. “How playful learning can help leapfrog progress in education.” Brookings (blog), April 2, 2019. https://www.brookings.edu/research/how-playful-learning-can-help-leapfrog-progress-in-education/.