I almost dropped my iPhone this morning. There, on the 2.31- by 4.87-inch screen, was “Why Playful Learning Is The Key to Prosperity.” Yes, in the “Entrepreneurs” section of Forbes. By 8:50 a.m., the piece, written by John Converse Townsend, the media manager of Ashoka—“we write about change in the making—“had garnered 9,276 views.
After an exuberant jig on my living-room rug, I got down to business, and ingested the message right upfront, in the lead paragraph:
In order for our global society to develop solutions to pressing problems in an increasingly technology-driven and constantly changing world, we need to re-train our workforce to do what machines can’t: to be enterprising, independent and strategic thinkers—to be purposeful creators.
Townsend sums up the evidence, citing a classic study published in Developmental Psychology in 1973, in which preschoolers were divided into three groups: one was allowed to play freely with four common objects; a second was asked to imitate an adult using the four objects; and the last group was left to sit at a table and draw. Immediately after the kids had finished, the researchers plied them for ideas about how one of the objects could be used. The results? The children who played freely generated, on average, three times as many “nonstandard, creative uses for the objects” than those who were more constricted.
I guess he’d missed Play=Learning, a more recent, 21st-century, collection of scientific wisdom compiled by Dorothy Singer, Roberta Golinkoff, and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, which takes us straight into the wild weeds of child development and education policy. But no matter.
Townsend then homes in on “hands-on, minds-on” approaches, not workbooks, a phrase hyperlinked to “Unleashing Empathy: How Teachers Transform Classrooms with Emotional Learning. ” Written by the aptly named Lennon Flowers, in a magazine called Yes!, the article was recently published by the Positive Futures Network, on Bainbridge Island, in Washington. I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to head out on the next ferry to meet these nurturers of creativity. Who, I’m sure, have checked out the Nordic countries—especially Finland, of the stellar PISA scores. As their National Curriculum Guidelines point out, “children use everything they see, hear, and experience as elements in their play. When they play, they imitate and create new things.”
Workbooks and rote learning just don’t cut it. Filling in the bubbles and the lines is not the secret to self-awareness, cooperation, and other kinds of social-emotional skills that foster learning. And the loss of play for America’s poor children—now one in four, putting us second only to Romania in rankings of child poverty—is devastating. They’re exposed to levels of stress that Jack Shonkoff of Harvard has likened to “having an adrenaline rush 24/7.” It’s hard to be innovative when you’re anxious, emotionally volatile, and your brain’s on auto-pilot.
Here’s Townsend’s call to action:
If we want a better, smarter planet, we need to change the way the next generation children are taught. Allowing more students to grow up without those prosocial, exploratory skills, leaving them unable to reach their potential, would be criminal.
Play can deliver.
What are we waiting for?
Forbes is on a mission. Earlier this year, “The Capitalist Tool” suggested that we might be “educating our kids out of creativity.” How’s that for an education policy critique? I’m next to them, on the pillow—a strange bedfellow, to be sure. An unholy alliance, I once would have called it. But I could get used to this marriage of convenience.
Caption: A still photograph from Spirit Ship, a short film by Kristin B. Eno, which showcases the original stories children make up as they go along their journeys, both real and imagined.