What makes a classroom different than a children’s museum? In many kindergartens today, children sit passively at their desk while teachers deliver the latest scripted lessons on vocabulary, spelling and addition—lessons sometimes dotted with classes in science and history. In children’s museums, these same students can be seen engineering bridges with tinkertoys, testing the force of air currents on paper airplane designs and cracking the code of the ancient hieroglyphics that line Egyptian Temples. Some might even argue that in the classroom, children are learning while in the museums, they are just playing.
But when we put on the black clunky glasses that the movie theaters provide to change our lens, we begin to see the irony in our assumptions. We begin to understand what scientists have known for decades—that play and learning are not divorced, but rather cut from the same cloth. The child building bridges carefully counts the number of plastic pieces that will be needed to erect the bridge and with a knowledgeable adult to guide her, she adds an understanding of physics as she compares straight to angled support beams. Like the scientist who literally “tinkers” and hypothesizes, she discovers that only the bridge with the angled beam will support the weight of a full glass of water. Using skills of communication, content knowledge (number, physics), critical thinking and creativity, this child is mastering competencies that business leaders will later find critical for success in the 21st Century workforce!
So, we might ask, why can’t our classrooms look more like children’s museums? Why is play being removed from our kindergarten classes to make more time for more academic subjects? And why did the American Academy of Pediatrics feel compelled to write an urgent report in 2006 bemoaning the loss of play and its serious effects on children and families?
It is time to look more closely at the power of play. Let’s take those 3-D glasses used in this year’s blockbusters and bring the playful activities of children into clearer focus. When we do, we will see beneath the surface properties of play and understand that when you can feel it, taste it and engage with it, learning takes place au natural. The child who balances that glass on the bridge and who decodes the cryptic message will have fun and develop a love of learning that can last a lifetime.
This week, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta M. Golinkoff will speak at “Partners in Play: A Forum on the Role of Play in Promoting Child Health and Well-being” sponsored by Playworks Baltimore, Port Discovery Children’s Museum, and The Open Society Institute-Baltimore. Read more about this event.