Child’s play is…child’s play


Education is serious business, especially for preschoolers. How much students learn in kindergarten can have an effect on their income for the rest of their life, according to economists from Harvard, UC-Berkeley and Northwestern University, so it’s no surprise that parents want the best prekindergarten education for their kids. A mother in New York City has taken this to the extreme by suing her child’s preschool for not providing the academic rigor expected for her daughter’s pre-pre-pre-Ivy League education. In fact, the preschool was “just one big playroom” according to the mother.

But as Jonah Lehrer points out, that is not necessarily a bad thing (although whether said playroom is worth $19,000 a year is debatable. I hope it at least had a ball pit for that price). As he mentions, a number of studies have concluded that unstructured play can actually have cognitive benefits for children (such as improvements in working memory and self-control). An article first published in Scientific American Mind in 2009 also highlights many of the emotional, social and cognitive benefits of “free play” (i.e. unstructured play), for animals and humans, and for teachers who are having a tough time managing their classroom of 8-year-olds, a study in Pediatrics shows students are better behaved in the classroom after given adequate time at recess to play.

Alison Gopnik also weighs in with an article on Slate suggesting that undirected play can help students learn better than being taught something in certain circumstances. She looks at two soon-to-be-published studies in the journal Cognition (including one by her lab at UC-Berkeley). In both studies, two groups of preschool aged children were given a toy: one group was told how the toy worked, while the other group was given the toy without any type of instruction. In both experiments, the children who were not instructed about how the toy worked were more likely to discover functions of the toy they were not told about, compared to the group who received explicit instructions about the toy.

These results may not be a surprise for advocates of Montessori education, where self-directed learning is one of the core tenets of the curriculum. But these experiments were performed on young children who had yet to enter formal education, so this begs the question: how applicable is this to older children or adults? I think how much one is able to “play” is really dependent on how much background knowledge one has. No background knowledge was required for the children to play with the toys in the experiment. However, a subject like calculus requires a substantial amount of background knowledge to learn, which is unlikely to be learned by a child left to their own devices. So when should direct instruction be used? Under what circumstances is undirected learning beneficial? The article in Slate touches on this by arguing there should be a balance between the two types of learning, but does not specify the best way this could be done.

I can actually relate to the type of unstructured play an adult might partake in. During my first week of graduate school, my supervisor gave me a computer program of a mathematical model and told me to “play” with it so I could understand the inner workings of the model. Having never worked with models like this in my life, I struggled with how to play with this model (and didn’t have very much fun). My lack of background knowledge in the subject prevented me from getting the most out of my undirected play with the model. As my knowledge of the subject matter increased, I was able to tinker with the model on my own and discover some new applications of the model that were useful and interesting (which I may yet write about some day). I think this highlights that for more advanced topics, direct instruction (for example, an assignment with right and wrong answers) is required before more creative ventures can be pursued, especially as the complexity of the subject increases.


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