If you want to use what you learn, and even improve on it, play may be the best way to learn.
From the fall of 2010 to spring 2012, I coordinated a study of an after-school program where 1st to 5th graders learned to play computer games with visiting university undergraduates. In the beginning they played an “educational” game designed to lead players toward some of the standard goals of the school curriculum in math, science, and literacy. But after a long day at school, these kids were more interested in playing than learning, and so they taught us a thing or two about what learning looks like when you put play first.
The original game we all played together was Quest Atlantis, which is a very thoughtfully designed educational game that includes elements of fantasy worlds and moral choices as well as quests and missions oriented to school knowledge. It worked well enough in the beginning, but most of our kids were younger than it was designed for. The undergraduates helped them with reading beyond their level, but soon enough the kids were teaching them how to play the game – the fun way! Which meant a lot more exploration of the game’s rich fantasy worlds, and playing chase and hide-and-seek in them, and a lot less completing of the official missions.
Seeing that the kids wanted more freedom to create and play on their own terms, we had the game designers add an empty world, just grass and distant mountains, that the kids proceeded to fill up with their fantasy houses, buildings, people, and stories. They learned a lot about creating a virtual world, but the real point of the world was (1) it was theirs, and (2) it was a place to play.
By the start of the second year, we knew the kids wanted to play a wider range of games, and we allowed a screened selection of commercial games that also had good opportunities for learning along the way. In World of Goo, Minecraft, Portal, and Flight Simulator the kids again put play first, but also couldn’t help learning about structural engineering, strategy and defense, three-dimensional orientation in space, and the basics of flight. Gameplay was an extension of playing with their friends, old and new, younger and older. Kids taught kids the tricks of the games, and kids taught newly arriving undergraduates as well. They had a chance to be the leaders and teachers, but it was always about the fun of playing together.
What it is about play that Nature has discovered with kittens and puppies, monkeys and people? Why do we enjoy it so much? What benefit is so important that Nature builds play into our make-up through the feeling of enjoyment and pleasure we take in it? Play is not just about the fun we have. It’s also about the freedom to explore possibilities, to break rules and make new ones, to try things out in different ways. Learning something is of no use if you can’t figure out how to apply it flexibly in new situations. Playful learning makes sure that everything you learn is learned along with a range of variations and alternative possibilities, and with a desire to feel free to try out new ones. Playful learning is the foundation for practical use and for innovation and creative re-use of everything we learn through play. It’s not popular with the people who want to tell us exactly what we should learn because that’s the one right answer. But it sure is popular with kids, and maybe we should all learn the lesson they’re teaching us.
A more detailed discussion of this project and the role of emotions and play in learning is written up here.