What is true play-based-learning?

Many have tried to define what play really is. Many have tried and many have succeeded in capturing some of the essence of what play is and what it involves. In its most basic form play is purely what children do. They are born with an innate ability to play and they use it as a means to rehearse skills, try out ideas, experiment with social interactions and make sense of the world around them.

Our society is riddled with the term ‘play based learning.’ It is used in educational settings and activity clubs alike. It is appealing to children and parents equally. Children are led to believe that the activity will be fun and adults are comforted by the knowledge that their children will be learning. In reality both the children and the parents have been misled.

In essence, for play to be most effective, one of its key attributes must be that the child has control over the activity. They must be able to say what the game is, and how long it is played for and what the rules of that game are and come to a common agreement with their fellow participants about the course of the game. All of which are missing from any play-based-learning initiative as the activity is devised and led by adults.

Parents are equally misled. They are bedazzled by claims about the power of play to enhance learning and enable their children to succeed in the chosen activity. They are assured that play is the best way that children learn. Their children are having fun and learning simultaneously. It is a parental win:win. But it is factually incorrect because play-based-learning is not real play and consequently any learning that occurs is less than it could have been.

Real play, unstructured, child-led, free play, is intrinsically motivated. The claims made by companies and educational facilities about play are not wrong but they are ill applied. Play-based learning activities have little effect when children are being coerced into ‘learning’ through the thin veil that the activity is fun.

Conversely, in an Unschooling household the child is free to choose how they spend their day. They are not governed by timetables or learning goals or curriculum or compulsory adult led activities. Children will play all day and learning will happen as a by product of the freedom they have to explore the world around them on their own terms and at their own speed and in their own way.

In an Unschooling household children are free to govern their play. The children make the rules about what the game is, who can play and how the game is played. They are in charge of any variations introduced into the game, any rule changes are agreed on between all participants. They have complete authority over the longevity of the game and how the game evolves.

In an Unschooling household unstructured play is genuinely fun. There is no hidden agenda. The purpose of the play is in the process and not the end goal. The enjoyment is in the moment of play.

In an Unschooling household play involves all the members of the family. Adults support and facilitate and join in children’s play. The flow of play throughout the day is how a child demonstrates their true self and how they learn best.

And as the children grow older the same attributes are transferred into real life situations so they continue to be in control of their day to day activities, they are able to define life scenarios that best suit them and the situations that they like to work within, and how to come to common agreements with fellow participants and when they are ready to move on from that activity.

The biggest challenge for adults can be to allow our children to play, and join them in that play, without attempting to create our own version of learning. To see the value of what they are doing in and of itself. To remove our school goggles and see afresh the beauty and joy of the moment before us.

Children need the freedom and time to play. Play is not a luxury. Play is a necessity.

Kay Redfield Jamison

Published by heiditsteel

Teacher turned Unschooler: passionate about autonomous education and supporting our children's natural inclination towards learning through play.

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