Play might be the highest form of research – but does it have a place in secondary education?

“Play is the highest form of research” (attributed to Albert Einstein)

Einstein’s quotation came to mind last week as I watched a four-year-old experiment with sand and water at one of our nursery schools.  He was completely absorbed in his task, trying to build a ring of sand to create a small pond effect.  He came to realize that he needed to wet the sand first to get it to stick together in order to make the walls strong enough and high enough to trap the water.

Time and again he tested his theory until – at last – success!

What struck me was that he was learning so much through the medium of play, where he had set the task, decided upon the success criteria, and established the timescale in which he would address the challenge.  The result? – total and absolute preoccupation and focus.

The father of play psychology Johan Huizinga defined play as follows:

“Summing up the formal characteristic of play, we might call it a free activity standing quite consciously outside ‘ordinary’ life as being ‘not serious’ but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly.”

Over the years I’ve become a complete convert to the early years’ approach, where children are encouraged to learn through play and active learning.  It’s been interesting to watch this approach percolate up through the primary school where play is often used in a productive manner with older children.

Yet when I consider the secondary school curriculum the notion of using play, as an approach to promoting learning is rare – and in some subject areas completely unknown. But rather than criticising my colleagues I would much rather prefer to attempt to understand and explain why this may be the case.

The secondary school curriculum has evolved into a set of formal learning outcomes that often lead the teacher to adopt a methodology where they have complete control over the nature of the learning process, the criteria by which success will be measured, and the duration of the learning experience.

This is driven by a tacit expectation that “good” teaching requires such explicit goals and formalised learning steps. Yet compare that to the learning that took place in the nursery school, where the child was able to create the task in response to the materials provided and encouragement to play.

There are three main obstacles for the adoption of play in the secondary school. Firstly, It has been suggested to me that teenagers don’t naturally respond to opportunities to “play” and that they prefer concrete and explicit learning tasks.  Secondly, the notion of teenagers being set free in a classroom to experiment with a range of available materials is simply a recipe for disaster!

The third, and potentially most compelling objection to adopting a play methodology is simply that teachers do not have the time to spend in such indulgent activities, given the pressure to get “through the course”.

Certainly this latter obstacle was a reality in an over-crowded and time limited S1 – S2 curriculum. But perhaps this is where an advantage can be derived from a properly conceived and delivered broad general education that extends across the first three years of secondary school.

There’s a lot of talk these days about deep learning – where the student has the opportunity to go beyond the typically shallow level of understanding and reasoning which characterised the early years of secondary school education. What can be deeper than to enable young people to create their own experiments and test their own theories about a subject area? I’m not simply talking here about experimentation in the scientific or technical mode.

It’s at this point that we can begin to draw upon the emerging practice where teachers are beginning to use play in a constructive and exciting manner to enhance and liberate the learning process.  Here are three examples I have gathered through an appeal via Twitter:

1. I get Higher pupils to create & act out missing scene (subtext) in novels/plays studied – need to know text to understand sub-text! & can make misssing scene personal to own community/situation – Tennessee Williams on the croft in Gaelic. ‘Play’ can make it relevant, personal and memorable. Seniors like chance to ‘play’ -when relevant- amongst such serious study.  I know when they go into exam hall they remember own interpretation of what is important in the text & they love that they played. @doglaunchers

2. Today I used Geogebra software with S2 for 1st time. I let them play with it for 15 mins rather than teaching them how to use it. They were completely absorbed in exploring what the software could do. I gave them no direction as to what they should be doing. @jonesieboy

3. This week we used  sand trays and water to encourage students to simulate coastal actions. I was very clear that I wasn’t looking for a definitive answer to anything, but I did want students to observe and record their findings before trying to link to actual coastal landscapes. The freedom allowed students to just try things their own way, experiment and probably make some different conclusions from mine, but some similar ones which they will ultimately keep from a memorable lesson. There are so many pieces and links we can pick up from this in future lessons, even if the learning was messy, with a different structure and an unusual way to explore the new topic.  @kenny73

Such powerful examples provide evidence that change is taking place in our schools – and that to certain extent we are seeing teachers “playing” with their pedagogy.  Now Einstein would have been impressed!