From education to employment

Power of Play: Why free play should be at the centre of all education

‘The ideal education for the people of tomorrow will mould voracious learners. Children who want to understand the how and why of everything. Explorers, investigators, tinkerers, growers. Yes, in a word, players.

This is the opener for the ‘school’ section of my book ‘Power of Play’. Don’t let the word ‘children’ put you off, though. If I’d been writing about further education it would all still apply. But before going any further I’ve found it’s essential to tackle that slippery four-letter word.

The whole reason I wrote the book was to reframe ‘play’ because there are so many preconceptions to push against. As MIT’s Mitch Resnick says, people assume you’re mostly talking about fun and larks, but really it’s “an attitude, a way of engaging with the world, where you’re constantly experimenting, trying new things, taking risks, testing the boundaries.” So I take readers on a journey from the smallest operations of our play-driven minds, all the way out to the grandest games we’re immersed in – to show play as our USP, our only real super-power, and not just sugar-coating for the dull stuff.

Free play is how we first discover the world, and it stays the most powerful form of learning we have. Babies playfully gum their blocks to suck a bone-deep knowledge of the world and its physics into their bodies; so the free play I advocate at any age seeks the same ‘active construction’, the same search for puzzles, the same conceptual blending, the same ‘magic circle’ where all possibilities can be explored.

Lowering the bar.

Considering the world is steeped in music, art and scientific creativity, it’s depressing how many millions of young students are still funnelled by schooling into a box marked ‘Non Creative’, at a ridiculously early age. It changes their view of themselves and limits them for life. So the first benefit of the play approach is inclusivity.

I looked back at a scene from the 1960’s Shoreditch Experimental Music School, where kids were encouraged to make an improvised soundtrack. The teacher played a keyboard chord to kick things off and, one by one, sizzling cymbals, glass-bowl bells, and trembling washes of glockenspiel were added. The school’s mission was to expand the whole concept of music in children’s minds. To show them they were just as free to explore its infinite landscape as anyone else. That it could be less about technique, and more about feels.

This free play builds a sense of openness and collaboration which allows people to make unique contributions, let loose their highest flying ideas, and still land safely without being made to look foolish. Not just in the arts but in any field of enquiry.

Free play doesn’t stay free for long.

A funny thing happens with the freedom of ‘freeplay’, though. You quickly discover it follows the same dynamics of all play by creating its own rulesets, and solidifying into what you first call games, and later call hard work. So the musical experiments in the scene above have way more value than just inspiration. The players soon learn that their deeper enjoyment needs organization; so they have to elect a conductor. And then they need notation, so they create it. Within minutes they’ve gone from free play to invention, to composition to performance to social politics; and all without being taught.

And because the goals have been uncovered and defined by the explorers themselves, they’ve laid personal claim to reaching them, so it’s the kind of hard work which can still feel like play. Why, then, does this approach so often stop in childhood? Brian Eno calls it a ‘stupid discontinuity’. “We have a thing that children do so naturally, but ..we “progressively subtract the play element, so the longer you go on in conventional education.. the whole message you’re being told is, ‘Stop playing’. There’s still a space reserved for play, but it’s a prescribed, minor space, like the art room.”

Playroom not classroom.

The play state uncovers questions, and those questions sharpen into the driving arrows of discovery. Even if it’s only for one small topic what we have is ‘radial learning’. Start from where you are and explore outwards ever wider. That’s why I love looking into places which fully embrace this mentality, like Brightworks in San Francisco or Agora in the Netherlands. Again, these schools might be designed for primary or secondary level, but the ethos of creating a passion for exploration and discovery applies to any age. People building their own understanding of the world because it excites them.

In fact, as more and more sophisticated forms of AR, VR and on-line learning level up the knowledge base for everyone, all schools should become play schools because it’s increasingly important to keep the learning space dynamic, ready to transform into an R’n’D studio, a science workshop, a drama stage, or a fab-lab; embracing games, toys, simulations, virtual environments, role play, quests, surprise, humour, competition, storytelling, and mystery.

And experiments should never just begin and end in the science block – this FREEPLAY of exploration can happen in every subject. Fantasy town-planning schemes, LARPing world politics, designing crypto currency, rethinking farming, building alternate histories to interrogate the past, terraforming new planets, modelling new ways to communicate, inventing new sports. Any one of these has the potential to draw in all areas of knowledge.

Fact is, ‘play’ is already alive and kicking in further education, as the University of Chicago shows. In their Fourcast Lab they’re playing out complete alternate realities, trying to fix global problems thirty years hence. With scenarios built from role play, fictional emails, experiments, clothing and props, they’re creating worlds where climate change, overpopulation and totalitarianism reach worst-case levels. So the playing of fictional problem-solving leads to actual innovation with far-reaching consequences we may well live to see.

It’s time to follow the free-players’ lead.

Paul Pethick is an expert in creative process, runs a consultancy called PlayLab, and is the author of a new book: Power of Play: How play and its games shape life.

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