Why the Best Learning Looks Like Play

My fourteen-year-old daughter is spending today doing and creating crossword puzzles, playing Sims, and rehearsing for her current role as Ginny in A Very Potter Musical. I asked her to tell me about a time she remembers play that was especially wonderful, or meaningful to her.

"What do you mean?" She asked me. "I'm always playing!"

Far from being the useful answer I hoped for that would help me frame this article, her answer helped me rewrite it. My fourteen-year-old unschooler is an accomplished writer, actor, and student, as well as one of the most diligent workers I know. She always keeps her goals and commitments in mind, runs her social and academic lives like tight ships, and yet feels like she has spent her life always playing.

My daughter is living the dream I dreamed for her, and yet the simplicity of it took me by surprise.

“This is the real secret of life — to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.”                           ~Alan Watts

I've been writing about the beautiful learning that my own kids and the kids I work with stumble upon while playing for a very long time, but every day I still run into my own judgments about what comprises valuable activity. This is the way with most of us, I think, who unwittingly (or otherwise) subscribe to the notion that drudgery makes us valuable. But it doesn't. It just makes us drudge.

Play is the word we use for something that we joyfully engage in. Work is often used to represent the opposite. What happens when, instead of teaching our children that hard work pays off with more time for play, we teach them that play is the way to engage with life. We teach them that they have to do some chores, and they have the power to make the chores fun. We join them in the chores because it's a happy way to engage socially. We teach them by example that we are constantly learning. We allow them to see our fascination at whatever we observe happening during the day, we talk to them openly about our wonderings and explorations and the things we've discovered by simply looking up that new word we heard or researching whether we can eat that berry growing in the park. Not only does this demonstrate a healthy way to learn through play, but it turns the job of parenting into joyful engagement... and that's play.

photo by my fabulous brother and teacher, Adrian van Lidth de Jeude, who knows the value of play
"But", says my own father, "at some point you have to stop playing and get to work." As a culture we've convinced ourselves that in order to be of value we have to struggle. I'm going to suggest we throw that away. Just chuck it out. Life has enough inherent struggles, and we're going to learn from every one of them. We don't need to set ourselves (or our children!) up for planned struggling. It doesn't make us more valuable; it just makes us less willing. Nobody went into a parenting or marital or personal crisis on purpose, and yet those crises happen and they make us who we are. They give us the passion we need to pick up and go again - only wiser.

Passion. That's what we need. There's passion in having a fun idea in the middle of the night and getting up to make it happen. There's passion to be found in discovering a new recipe or a new unsolved mystery or a new insect on the wall. There's passion to be had in taking any of the hundreds of experiences of our day and allowing it to inspire us. And that's what some of the best learning looks like: Passionate play.

Maybe it sounds pompous of me to call anything the best learning, but I'm not backing down, there. For decades, now, research has been showing the massive value of play-based learning for people of all ages but especially for children and youth. Some excellent schools have been putting it into practice for a long time, and many businesses are following suit, as companies encourage their employees to both explore their own passions and share their pursuits with the team. In these cases students and employees are encouraged to play; encouraged to explore, and the result is empowered, passionate learners. The result is better teams; better learning; better work.

I live in British Columbia, where the Ministry of Education has rejigged the provincial curriculum to focus on core competencies and other broad ideas that create opportunities for empowered, self-directed, explorative learning. It is taking a while to reach the goals of the new curriculum, but we're on our way. Maybe in twenty years we'll have a whole generation of young adults who have learned through playing all their lives, and go on to build inspired, engaging careers based on curiosity, learning, and enthusiasm. No matter what we're doing, may we always be playing.
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