To borrow from our colleague, David Bjorklund, it is pretty fair to conclude, “Children did not evolve to sit quietly at desks in age-segregated classrooms…” (2007). Yet here we are in 2014, under the remnants of No Child Left Behind, where children are doing just that – individually and passively ingesting quantities of information for high stakes tests (Hirsh-Pasek, Golinkoff, Berk, & Singer, 2009). Yet in the 21st century, children will be required to operate in a world where information will be at their fingertips. Content is necessary, but it is not the whole story. Our most successful citizens will be required to use the “6C’s” (Golinkoff & Hirsh-Pasek, 2013): collaboration (building new knowledge and approaches with others); communication (persuasively arguing – and listening – to share ideas); content (the 3R’s and so much more); critical thinking (selecting and synthesizing the information needed to perform the task at hand); creative innovation (using content and critical thinking to envision new solutions to old problems); and confidence (the old saws about perspiration and perseverance have much to offer).
What if we could wave a magic wand and change the sterile pedagogical approach used in many schools today? What kind of a more evolutionarily sound pedagogy would replace silent classrooms, where well-meaning teachers drone on while children fill in blanks on worksheets that constrain the answer space? We suggest that “playful learning” – an umbrella term that includes both “guided play” and “free play” – might be the antidote to today’s atavistic classrooms. Playful learning provides a middle ground between positions like Peter Gray’s (2013), where children are expected to learn entirely through self-directed play and exploration, and David Geary’s (2009) approach that emphasizes the importance of didactic instruction for “biologically secondary knowledge” like mathematics.
Free play allows children to be in charge and to explore their surroundings with or without social partners. Watch two children muck about with a net and a bucket at the seashore. They can be absorbed for hours, extending their attention spans, formulating hypotheses (what happened to the animals that lived in these shells?), and fueling their intellectual engine to want to know more about their world. While free play has many cognitive, psychological, and emotional advantages, it turns out that if you want children to learn something, it is better to provide a framework, or lens, for them to see it through. Here is where guided play comes in. An example illustrates the concept and attests to its power.
We and Kelly Fisher (with Nora Newcombe; 2014) wanted to see whether preschoolers would best learn the properties of geometric forms if they were told these properties (think didactic instruction), versus if they were guided to discover them (think guided play), versus if they were simply given geometric forms to play with (think free play). Learning that triangles, for instance, must have three sides and three “corners” seems easy until children are presented with non-standard forms like right or scalene triangles. Then, if they haven’t figured out what makes a triangle a triangle, they are lost.
After experiencing these three different kinds of pedagogy in the controlled experiment, 4-year-olds were all able to identify four different, standard variety, geometric forms. It was on the non-standard forms that the children who had learned with guided play – where the teacher followed their lead – shined. The children who had didactic instruction or free play bombed, while the children who had been active participants in their own learning did marvelously. Active, engaged, and meaningful learning creates learners who can extend (“transfer”) what they know to new instances.
If we are to prepare our kids for a future where the 6C’s are essential, we will need to change classrooms to breed engaged and energetic learners who eat ideas for breakfast. Questioning and meaning-making will need to be de rigueur. Training children to fill in blanks correctly only seems more effective and efficient than inviting them to participate. Learning “sticks” when teachers with learning goals follow children’s lead and encourage debate and wonder.