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  • Writer's pictureJulia Reeve

Child's Play

Updated: Oct 25, 2021

"I've been twelve forever" Michel Gondry

Director Michel Gondry's childlike vision has fuelled his creativity, resulting in magical, playful films and music videos (see example above). In this blog post I reflect on the role of childhood in playful and creative learning: maybe it's ok not to be a 'grown-up' sometimes?

Back to Playschool

In Lifelong Kindergarten, Mitchel Resnick nominates Froebel's invention of the first Kindergarten as the greatest invention of the past thousand years. He argues that Froebel's radical approach to education, involving imagination, creation, play, sharing and reflection is a model that can be applied to learners of any age. Resnick describes this process as a Creative Learning Spiral (see Drawing deeper into research blog post).

Lifelong Kindergarten by Mitchel Resnick
Lifelong Kindergarten by Mitchel Resnick

Froebel designed his own toys for learning, known as Froebel's Gifts: Lego® bricks are one of many descendants of these educational toys. The Lego® Serious Play® methodology has much in common with this kindergarten approach: responses to questions are imagined and created in 3D, enabling sharing, reflection and deep learning. The play may be labelled 'Serious' but the method owes much to Froebel's vision (see below).

Play History

When adult learners first come into a room that is filled with brightly coloured Lego® bricks, the first thing I notice is that they start smiling: the second thing I notice is the memories that are evoked. Participants start to reminisce about playing with Lego® as a child, or share more recent memories about their children's Lego® play. Obviously this isn't the case for everybody: we all have a different 'play history' and Lego® will not have featured in everyone's play experiences.

Vintage Lego kit from 1952, Lego House, Billund
Vintage Lego® kit from 1952, Lego House, Billund

The notion of exploring our 'play history' was touched on in an earlier blog post, Lego in Lockdown, where I reflected on creating cut-out paper dolls as a child. In 'Play: how it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the Soul' Stuart Brown explores the notion of 'play history' in depth. Thinking back to the kinds of play we enjoyed as a child may give us clues to our preferred ways of learning as an adult. Did you enjoy playing with others or alone? Making things, performing or competing? Creating imaginary worlds or stories? Different playful learning scenarios will strike a chord with different individuals: 'cutting and sticking' activities may take some back to playschool days, while the smell of Play-Doh® may be evocative for others. Sharing these memories can bring an added layer of warm nostalgia to learning, although it is worth mentioning that not all memories may be positive!

Permission to Play

One major difference between children and adult learners is that as 'grown-ups' we may feel uncomfortable or self-conscious when asked to take part in creative or playful activities. We may feel that play is inappropriate for 'serious' learning, or that we will look foolish: so how do we give 'permission to play' to adult learners? Here's a few suggestions:

Provide materials with 'Playful affordances'

Certain materials are inherently associated with play and creativity. An obvious example is Lego® bricks as mentioned above, but other materials can also suggest a playful approach to learning. For example, providing coloured paper, felt pens, glue and scissors immediately conjures up a 'Playschool' feel, as opposed to the rather dreary flip chart and post-it note option often used in staff training sessions. Tactile materials such as Play-Doh® encourage play, as do piles of magazines for collage. In an online environment, simply asking participants to use pen and paper for some creative exercises such as mind-mapping or creating infographics by hand, can provide a much-needed playful break from screen-based activities.

Facilitate, don't Lecture

Participants need some space to feel comfortable with playful learning, so try to keep input to a minimum and act as a 'guide on the side' rather than a 'sage on the stage': even better, if it's possible take part in the activity alongside learners. Although sharing creations is a valuable part of a playful learning approach, don't push this too much: some may feel embarrassed about sharing what they have built/drawn/modelled. Invite volunteers first, then others will feel more confident to follow. For an introduction to Creative Learning based on the kindergarten approach, see the video below from the Learning Creative Learning course by MIT Media Lab.

Play with Sound

If participants are happy with it, some gentle music can really help to create an informal atmosphere for playful sessions: this may be the relaxing kind (see Can Playfulness Alleviate Academic Anxiety? blog post) or something more lively. If your session is about idea generation, you may not want lyrics that may interfere with creative thinking, so instrumentals are ideal: my personal choice is Miles Davis...

Playing in Lockdown

As we try to navigate through the unprecedented demands of 2020, taking a childlike view may be a useful skill for survival, not just for learning. Sales of board games, Lego kits and craft materials have soared during recent months, and families are finding solace in play and creativity as a way "to release stress and tighten family ties during these challenging times”.

So, maybe try some playful activites you enjoyed as a child, break out the toy box, put on some music and remember George Bernard Shaw's wise words:

We don't stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.


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