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!

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

  1. Play theory was one of the elements that underpinned the work that I did in trying to bring game based learning via COTS games to Scottish schools. You guys at East Lothian will know this when you adopted the Guitar Hero idea and methodology for your award transition project. If you get the context right and allow learners, no matter their age, to suspend their disbelief and lose themselves in play then you can situate them in learning where they will willingly choose to put themselves…

    You spoke of your interest in the Early Years model so I thought you might find this recent Journal article about Signature Pedagogies in the early Years with computer games of interest:

    It’s in a pay to access Journal though. Happy to chat about if you are interested and have no way of accessing it other than straight payment.

  2. I recently worked on this eBook on Playful Learning: Computer Games in Education.

    As well as the work on COTS Games that Derek and his team have pioneered in Scotland there may also be a place of ‘gamification’ of learning (I give some examples in chapter 3). But basically it is about taking some of the concepts that we know work well from video games and applying them to more traditional learning contexts. For example unlocking levels (or learning), gaining points (progression), reward badges (recognition / certification), obvious links to collaboration and communication etc.

    Quite a nice little TED talk on Gamification here:

  3. This is an interesting post Don.

    One of the questions which puzzles me still is, what would ‘play’ look like in a secondary context. I’m not sure.

    There were a couple of replies to your tweets I noticed which included examples such as using sand trays in Geography and Mario Kart on the Wii in Maths. These obviously stand out as potential examples, but I remain unconvinced. When my three year old daughter is playing in a sand tray, she isn’t doing so in order to fulfill predetermined learning criteria. She is genuinely exploring an unchartered world (from her perspective). Ultimately, she is inquiring.

    When a ‘play’ type of activity is used in a secondary context, I believe there is a danger that it is not actually fulfilling the form of learning we see in the early years and seek to employ with teenagers. If I play a game with a class to teach them about energy flow in food chains, I wouldn’t classify that as the same form of inquisitive play we see in the early years. However, if I stimulate thoughts and questions about energy flow in food chains and encourage the students to explore this concept in their own ways, I think this would be more akin to the early years approach of inquiry – however there wouldn’t necessarily be a game in sight.

    I think this is complex, and I’m still pondering it myself. Ultimately what I think I’m trying to say is that it is inquiry and exploration we should really be aiming for, not necessarily ‘play’.

  4. The quote from Johan Huizinga seems very reminiscent of the concept of “flow” by Csikszentmihalyi – being utterly absorbed in the moment yet transcending it to experience a freedom. I believe that most of us have experienced this in our own learning journeys, where our learning has been effortless and enjoyable.

    We perhaps need a reconceptualisation of “play” to suit the needs of the secondary sector in terms of students’ learning.

    Play, in my mind, is greater than games and yes, it is about inquiry and exploration; but beyond that it is about the sharing of a cultural space, where relationships between students and teachers can develop purposefully and positively. This creates the right conditions for students to feel their efforts are worthwhile and safe to experiment with their thinking and its representations across the curriculum.

    Play is about this expression of self, an extension of thinking which is why students’ ownership of their own learning is imperative. Personalisation and choice should not just be an ad hoc principle with a tick box to say we’ve “engaged” students – its purpose is to enable students to take responsibility for their own learning.

    Play and work seem to be polar opposites. But should this be the case? Is learning work or play? If so, when?

  5. I agree absolutely with Fearghal’s reply. There’s a danger that ‘play’ is seen as the same as ‘games’ and it isn’t. Games can be used as learning through play, but not necessarily. To me ‘play’ is exactly as described by FK, exploring the world, making sense of it, through play. Children learn naturally while playing – this is the way they learn best! I think the spirit of enquiry and excitement in learning and making sense of new concepts is still there in secondary. As I said on twitter – whenever young people are engaged in active learning, outdoor learning, creating, problem solving and story telling (which is how we communicate) – they are learning through ‘play’. The danger is that they’ll be turned off learning in school and see it as driven by exams, but this is what CfE is striving to overcome.
    So, to conclude this rambling reply – if we are teaching in the spirit of CfE in secondaries and not merely trying to cram young people full of facts to pass exams – then there is already an age-appropriate version of learning through ‘play’ in secondary schools.

  6. Too many characters for a tweet but there are some thoughts on play here:

    To my surprise, the spelling game remains the most popular – even with those who claim not to enjoy reading and writing

  7. link problems – all I can suggest is using the search word ‘games’ and there are 5 posts from 2006 describing varous musical games used in class.

  8. Pingback: Learning through play: pedagogy, challenges and ideas | Education News

  9. Pingback: Play might be the highest form of research – but does it have a place in secondary education? | Don Ledingham's Learning Log | Rehumanizing Education |

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