The Importance of PLAY in Natural Learning

Natural Learning by Kathleen McCurdy

Most of us have been amused by the cute antics of puppies, kittens and other immature animals at play. Pouncing, growling, chasing their tails, tangling with a ball of yarn or chewing on an old shoe…it all looks like fun, but of course we know they are just practicing survival skills. We have been told that animals don’t really play the way children do; life is much too serious for them. They must spend every waking moment developing and perfecting all the skills necessary to eat and keep from being eaten. But is the play of children inherently different than that of animals?

Scientists studying chimpanzees have observed hat young animals deprived of their mothers did not play the way the others did. During the first four or five years of life, chimps are in close contact with their mothers and have plenty of time to observe adult behavior and incorporate what they observe into their play. Jane Van Lawick-Goodall and her colleagues, who studied free-ranging chimpanzees in Tanzania, reported a striking example of how this early observation together with play leads to skilled adult behavior.

Goodall had noted that adult chimps have learned to catch and eat termites. They will find an appropriate stick, peel off the bark, wet the stick in their mouth and then insert it into termite holes. Waiting a moment for the termites to adhere to the stick, they remove it and lick off the termites with relish. Young chimps were observed sitting near their mothers while playing with sticks. They would spend time just peeling bark off of sticks, or trying out different sizes of sticks in different holes. They weren’t hunting termites yet, they were just playing. One young chimp, who had lost his mother in his third year and was raised by older siblings, never learned this special skill of termiting. He lacked the opportunity to observe an adult closely, said Goodall, and did not get the buffering from external pressures that a mother normally provides.

Some have concluded, therefore, that play is indeed important not only to survival, but it provides practice in subroutines and sequences of behavior that later come together in skilled action and useful problem solving. Play also reduces or neutralizes the pressure to achieve. Doubtless we have all experienced instances where we wanted very much to learn a complex skill or simply recall a name, to no avail. But later we are surprised to find that when the pressure s off, it comes to us easily. Just so, play helps children to learn in a casual way many skills which would otherwise seem too complicated. By de-emphasizing the importance of the goal, play may serve to reduce excessive drive and thus enable children to learn more easily the skills they will need when they are older.

Well-known psychologist and researcher Jerome S. Bruner studied the effects of play on the problem solving abilities of children. He and his colleagues designed an experiment where three-to-five-year-olds were given the task of fishing a prize from a box that was out of reach. The only way they could do this was to join two sticks by means of a clamp, thus making a pole with which to reach the prize. The children were divided into five groups. The first group were “taught” by an adult, who demonstrated how to clamp sticks together. The second group was drilled in the skill of fastening a clamp on a stick. The third group watched the experimenter carry out the entire task of making the pole and then fishing out the prize. The fourth group received no training at all, but was simply given the opportunity to play with the materials. The fifth group was the control group and received no prior exposure to the materials.

The results of this experiment are quite impressive. The children who only played with the materials were able to solve the problem as well as those who watched the complete solution demonstrated, and twice as successful as the ones who were “taught” the principle or who practiced the necessary skill. Said Dr. Bruner, “We were quite struck by the tenacity with which the children in the play group stuck to the task. Even when their initial approach was misguided, they ended by solving the problem because they were able to resist frustration and the temptation to give up. They were playing.” (From “Play Is Serious Business” in Psychology Today, January, 1975).

Other researchers have found that the opportunity for play affects a child’s later creativity. Play serves as a vehicle for language acquisition, and helps a child assimilate experiences to his personal understanding of the world. (Witness the little girl talking to her dolly, using not only the words but the very intonations she heard her mother use when visiting with a friend.) “We now know that play is serious business, indeed, the principal business of childhood. It is the vehicle of improvisation and combination, the first carrier of rule systems through which a world of cultural restraint replaces the operation of childish impulse.” (Bruner, idem.) Yes, sometimes two children playing house will spend hours deciding who will be the mom and who will be the child, etc., that is, the rules of the game! One can’t help but note that homeschooled children must surely have more time to play than others who must stand in line, wait for the bell to ring, or finish their homework. Is this the reason for their greater creativity, as well as their finer honed social skills?

According to Benjamin S. Bloom, noted professor of education at the University of Chicago and others, about 95% of today’s classroom teaching focuses on the “lower mental processes” –rote learning of grammar, multiplication tables, historical names and dates. Most teachers spend very little time on the “higher mental processes”—problem solving, analyzing, interpreting. Yet in a number of studies, Bloom and others found that as children improved their thinking skills, there was a gain in the rote learning too. “Knowing what an idea or a principle means and how it can be applied, helps the child learn better and remember longer,” Bloom said.

These “higher mental processes” are exactly the ones being exercised during play. Little children trying to fish a prize out a box that is out of reach must analyze and interpret the situation. Trying various solutions exercises the ability to interpret result and eventually leads to solving the problem. Whether a child is racing little cars, building with Lego bricks, or serving tea to her dolls, those higher mental processes are being fully exercised. Of course this all comes to a halt when the child is sent off to school.

As Hart, Smith, and others have pointed out, newborns begin at once a vigorous, aggressive effort to make sense of the world they have entered. “If healthy, they probe, explore, examine, investigate and test until thy find themselves at a school desk, coerced to sit still and listen, to do only what they are told, and even to start and stop that as ordered. These are brain antagonistic conditions and under them, learning grinds to a halt.” (Leslie A. Hart, in Education Leadership, March, 1981.)

An article in Changing Times of December, 1986, reviewed a number of commercial products designed to help parents prepare their preschoolers for reading. It was found that such products were inadequate because the process of learning used was structured and formal, dealing with workbooks and other traditional academic processes. The authors noted that children learn better when they have plenty of opportunities to explore, create, and initiate their own activities in order to learn at their own rhythm, and experience the world in a hands–on way, whether they are building towers with alphabet blocks or imitating zoo animals.

Another criticism voiced was that the activities suggested in workbooks and programs seemed unnecessarily contrived. For example, children were instructed to cut sock shapes out of different colored construction paper and then sort them into pairs. So nature why not let them sort real socks and thus learn to be helpful as well as practicing classification skills. Besides, workbooks and other material of that nature tend to produce a disease that I call “Right-answeritis”. Such material doesn’t help them learn to think critically or creatively, nor does it produce much significant learning, says Carol Otis Hurst, a early reading specialist. She designed public school literature programs and taught university classes. She believed that children, especially preschoolers, should be occupied with other more important things, such as the cause and effect of rain in relation to mud puddles and other non teachable discoveries.