This article is going to enshrine play as an unrivaled vehicle for learning. It will start by discussing how kids play to learn. It talks about the Montessori system of education and about my own experience in school. The article will end with discussing how playing as an adult can actually supercharge our learning.
The primary aim of this website is to empower its readers by subverting much of the “common sense wisdom” which has been drilled into us which only serves to keep us caged in prisons of predictability and conformity.
Play makes us great. So read on if this is something which interests you.
Einstein And Play
There is a story about Albert Einstein in the book “Internet Invention: From Literacy to Electracy”. As a young boy of four or five, Einstein received a compass from his father. He spent hours playing with the compass, watching as the arrow consistently shifted to point in the same direction. Einstein is quoted in the book as saying: “I can still remember that this experience made a deep and lasting impression on me. Something deeply hidden had to be behind things.”
According to Einstein, this was a watershed experience which sparked his interest in scientific exploration. By playing with the compass, Einstein engaged with one of the fundamental forces of the universe (magnetism); he then opened his mind to explore the hidden order beneath the behavior he observed. Such a seemingly common-sense thing as the way a compass aligns itself, seen in the fresh eyes of a child, can spark profound, deep questions.
I have included the following quote by Einstein in a previous article, but I find it so thought-provoking that I’m citing it again:
“Play is the highest form of research.”
Taking the story about Einstein and the compass, along with this quote, allows us to see exactly why he held play in such high esteem.
Play engages us fully with the world.
Children And Play
Play in childhood is a human universal. Children from all cultures and countries have a natural tendency to engage in play. The significance of play in the lives of children was recognized in ancient times. For example, in “The Republic” by Plato, children’s play was encouraged as a means of learning through experience. In fact, the Greek word paideia stands for both “play” and “education.”
In her TED talk, Professor Doris Fromberg, Director of Early Childhood Teacher Education at Hofstra University, states that play enables children to “pull together the logical and creative parts of the brain.”
Play is ingrained in our genetics. And for good evolutionary reason; engaging in play is beneficial to our survival. It has been suggested that the game of tag, which is universally played in some form or another, is a form of predator-play simulation.
Playing tag allows children to take on the role of a predator or prey and act out the encounter. It engages their bodies and brains, developing their physical and cognitive abilities, preparing them to face the challenges of the natural world, all while being fun.
Stress And Learning
The more stressed we are the harder it is for us to learn. Stress engages our fight-or-flight mechanism, which is responsible for keeping us alive when we face threats. Being in fight-or-flight mode means we are surviving, protecting what we have, not thriving, growing or learning.
Learning while we are in fight-or-flight mode is much more difficult than learning while we’re relaxed. This is why stressing out children by putting ridiculous academic expectations on them is actually counterproductive. Children need time to be children, high-stakes testing and overflowing schedules robs them of that time.
The truth is we all learn the best when we’re relaxed (read this if you want to learn how to use your breath to relax). We can take this even further and say that we learn best while we’re having fun!
Meaningful Play In Childhood
Schools that follow the Montessori model of education focus on encouraging children to learn through “meaningful play.” I wrote an article about why the traditional model of schooling is so terrible; in it I talk about the “Montessori Mafia.” Basically, a large portion of successful creative people attended Montessori schools.
Meaningful play has five characteristics:
- It allows the child to choose what he/she does.
- It feels fun and enjoyable to the child.
- It is driven by the child’s intrinsic motivation, meaning that it’s not imposed by an authority figure.
- It evolves spontaneously, children make it up as they go, they don’t follow a script.
- It creates a low-risk environment, there is no such thing as a “wrong answer.” Children are free to experiment and try new things.
Can you imagine how different a child’s perception of the world, and his/her role in it, is when they go to a school that focuses on meaningful play?
Well, Montessori schools have been around long enough for us to measure its effect on children’s’ development. When compared to children educated in traditional schools, Montessori children:
- Have higher verbal intelligence.
- Have higher visual, motor and performance IQ.
- Have higher academic and school readiness.
- Have higher attention, concentration and resistance to distraction and impulsiveness.
- Are more compassionate and have a stronger sense of fairness and justice.
Going On A Tangent – My School Experience
I went to traditional schools all my life, I’m sure you (the reader) did too. My schools followed the exact opposite of meaningful play. What we did was more like meaningless work! I learned to follow orders, judge classmates and compete; not direct myself, and help classmates grow by cooperating with them. I didn’t even play with other children in elementary school. I sat away from everyone during recess because I felt I had nothing in common with anyone.
In junior high I spent my recesses alone in the library, reading. I didn’t make a solid group of friends until high school.
I’m not a Montessori school representative. I seek to present alternatives to how most of us were taught to do things. Unless we reflect on our lives and question how we got to where we are, we are incapable of learning from our mistakes (or those of our caregivers) and choosing better for ourselves.
Montessori schools are pricey. They aren’t an option for most people. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from the system and apply it to our own lives. And what makes Montessori great is meaningful play!
A few years ago I was incredibly disappointed with my life circumstances. I looked at my life and I thought “I did everything I was told. I did everything right. I got the good grades, I went to college and graduate school. So why am I so unsatisfied with my life circumstances?”
I Wanted To Expand My Life
I wanted to travel and meet new, interesting people. To create things which brought value into people’s lives. Instead, I felt like I was stuck in a ditch of poverty and dissatisfaction. I was so frustrated and I had no idea how I had gotten there
I had walked blindly into a dead end, only realizing it once I smacked into the wall which separated me from the life I wanted to live.
Turns out it wasn’t entirely my fault. I just did what I was told as a child, teenager and young adult. I didn’t know that “doing what we’re told” leads us to living life on other people’s terms, not ours.
I didn’t want to work for 40 years at a company for someone else, with a salary that barely grew year after soul-crushing year. I didn’t want to have to ask permission to go on vacation to see the people I loved. I didn’t want put all my energy into building someone else’s dream.
Deep down I knew that there had to be more to my life than that. There had to be more in store for me. And not just for me, but for everyone who wanted it.
But that deep feeling of knowing didn’t match the reality of my capabilities.
So I set out to make myself capable of bringing that feeling to reality.
I’ve been on that quest since 2017. I still am. And I will keep going until I reach my goal: financial, creative and geographic independence. That’s why I’m sharing everything I’ve learned in this blog, so others who want to do the same can learn from my experience.
End Of Tangent – Meaningful Play In Adulthood
I felt the tangent was essential so I could get you to look at your own life and see where you’ve been cheated, if you have been. I was cheated, and I didn’t even know it. So maybe you were too. I don’t know. That’s for you to decide. If you were (and most of us were), it’s up to you to change the rules of the game.
Let’s do a simple exercise. Take another look at the 5 characteristics of meaningful play. But this time as you read the list, replace the word “child” with the word “adult.”
Please do it.
What you just read is a guide to living life on your terms. Meaningful play as an adult has 5 characteristics. You choose what you do; it feels fun and enjoyable; it’s driven by our intrinsic motivation; it evolves spontaneously (like life) and it creates a low-risk environment.
That’s what Montessori schools teach children, to live life on their terms while being compassionate towards others, through play. Naturally, if you want to live life on your terms as an adult, a good place to start is by looking at how the professionals do it.
As we get older life seems to squeeze all the playfulness outta us. In the United States, Puritan or Protestant work ethic makes no room for play, deeming it unproductive as it produces no wealth nor goods. This belief system lines up nicely with capitalism, which hold efficiency and productivity as sacrosanct.
The older we get the more seriously we take ourselves, until we get so old we stop caring about appearances. But by that point life has passed us by, and all the while we took ourselves so seriously we never took the time to play.
That’s tragic because playing makes us great.
Playing As Adults
This quote by George Bernard Shaw rings true:
“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”
I have written numerous articles which talk about doing things differently and more effectively: the importance of doing what we like, of thinking like a child, of following our curiosity and following fun. Read them if you’re interested.
I would like to add this article you’re reading to the list. Playing regularly as adults comes with tremendous benefits:
- Relieves stress.
- Improves brain function.
- Stimulates the mind and boosts creativity.
- Improves relationships and connections to others.
- Keeps us feeling young and energetic.
It Also Supercharges Our Learning
This dissertation by David J. Tranis, titled “Exploring Play/Playfulness In Learning In The Adult And Higher Education Classroom” cites a study which concludes that play:
- Opens adults to learning.
- Keeps them involved in learning.
- Allows for deeper connections and understanding of self.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a psychologist who studies the phenomenon of “flow”, the optimal state of human performance in which we become totally immersed in what we’re doing. While in flow, the activity itself is so enjoyable that people do it for the sake of doing it. Csikszentmihalyi identifies that flow mirrors playfulness.
Do you ever get so lost in learning something that hours pass by without your realizing it?
Have you ever lost track of time while you play a game?
Now Combine Learning And Play
Learning through play is so powerful because it allows us to fully engage with whatever we’re learning. We become one with the subject. We engage with all of our senses and cognitive ability.
But how do you play while you learn?
First, identify what you want to learn about. You have to like it! If you don’t like the subject then it’ll be difficult, if not impossible, to flow (play) with it. That’s another reason why school is so awful, it forces children to “learn” things they’re not interested in.
Second, engage with the material in a way that is playful FOR YOU.
For me it’s reading. Reading is playing for me. But reading is a solitary activity. What if I want to learn about a subject, in a playful way, with other people?
I Get Into Discussions With People
Discussing subjects with other people is how I play/learn, as an adult. I can spend hours doing that. By the end of it, usually, my head is buzzing from the learning which happened.
Discussions do not get the love they deserve in our present day. Socrates swore by them. The Socratic method of teaching (widely regarded to be unrivaled in its educational power) is based entirely on collaborative discussion.
If you have an interest, there are people in the world who share that interest and who would love to talk about it with you. Guaranteed 100%. You love learning about dog breeding? Stamp collecting? Medieval sword fighting?
All you have to do is find your people and talk with them. Cue the internet. The internet is your vehicle for discovering like-minded people to discuss things with. Use it! As you do so watch how your knowledge of your interest explodes and you learn things you never even knew existed!
People are tremendous stores of information. Discussing with them starts an exchange of information which leaves both parties more knowledgeable.
Will your efforts always work out? No. But when they do it’ll make everything worth it.
In Conclusion – PLAY TO LEARN!
I hope you found this article educational. Play has been recognized as invaluable for children’s education since ancient Greece. Probably before then. But play as a vehicle for adult education is largely unrecognized.
It’s up to us adults to play to learn!
I invite you to learn as much as you can about the world. After all, our actions can be no greater than our wisdom and our wisdom can be no greater than our understanding. Learn to understand. Play to learn. The world responds to it! I guarantee it.
To our wealth and success.