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Playing to Learn

"Nothing beats watching a child experience the joy and wonder of play," says Dr. Brenna Hassinger-Das. She studies the links between play and learning every day as a postdoctoral fellow working with Dr. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek at the Temple Infant and Child Lab—and as a mother. She shares the following advice on how to create engaging play spaces.    

By Brenna Hassinger-Das, Ph.D.

Nothing beats watching a child experience the joy and wonder of play. As a psychology researcher and parent, I still marvel at how much children learn through the playful interactions and activities I observe on a daily basis. Indeed, ethnographer George Dorsey once said, “Play is the beginning of knowledge.”

For both children and adults, play provides physical, social, and cognitive benefits. However, in the last 20 years, schools in the United States have increasingly cut recess from their daily schedules to allow for more time for direct academic instruction. In fact, children are playing less everywhere, not just in school. Free play time after school has been replaced by strict schedule of extracurricular activities for many children. Unfortunately, these changes have not resulted in great educational gains, and American children still do not perform at the same level as other industrialized nations in reading, science, and math. Yet, a false dichotomy prevails, presenting play and learning as mutually exclusive.

80% of children’s waking time is spent outside of the classroom.

Although the main way of addressing this lag in achievement has been through school-based reforms, the fact is that 80% of children’s waking time is spent outside of the classroom. As such, there is a real need to encourage learning and discovery in the many places where children and families spend their time.

Play may help connect individuals with the places around them and reinterpret ways to use public space. In particular, playful learning— a broad educational approach featuring child-directed play methods—provides a unique way to foster learning and engagement with the built environment.

Play spaces literally make room for play in a society starved of opportunities for play. 

Play spaces literally make room for play in a society starved of opportunities for play. Incorporating playful elements into architecture, public spaces, and playgrounds also promotes curiosity and a desire to learn. The physical environment can influence internally driven curiosity through the creation of a disposition and readiness to engage in and explore a learning activity—termed a mise en place. This French phrase references chefs’ preparations before cooking, including moving all tools and ingredients into easy reach. Putting things in place for a learning activity will engage children more readily, while also encouraging conversations involving a targeted learning goal. These are key ingredients to keep in mind when designing play spaces for children (and adults) of all ages.

But why is play effective for learning? Research from the Temple Infant and Child Lab where I work has demonstrated the ability of playful learning to affect a variety of child outcomes. Playful learning may be successful because it embodies the key ingredients for learning; it is active, engaged, meaningful, and socially interactive. These are key ingredients to keep in mind when designing play spaces for children (and adults) of all ages.

Active learning refers to contexts that are “minds-on” and require careful thought and deliberation. Physically active play is also important, since it can mediate obesity and other health risks in addition to fostering motor skills. Engaged learning happens when children are focused on a task and not distracted. The enjoyable nature of play helps draw children in and allows them to focus while having fun. Play doesn’t need a ton of bells and whistles; a simple play space featuring visually interesting block play or other child-friendly activities is enough to get children interested.

Play doesn’t need a ton of bells and whistles; a simple play space featuring visually interesting block play or other child-friendly activities is enough to get children interested.

Research also shows that when content is presented in a meaningful way that relates to children’s previous life experiences, they are more likely to learn that information. Play spaces can accomplish this by incorporating elements from the neighborhood that are familiar to the children to help them connect with the space. Finally, socially interactive learning involves children working together to learn new concepts and ideas. Play spaces can encourage social interaction by including elements that require the participation of more than one child to operate.

To learn more about the links between play and learning, I invite you to attend Play Power with Kathy Hirsh-Pasek on December 9, 2015 from 5:30-7:30pm at the Center for Architecture, 1216 Arch Street. Dr. Hirsh-Pasek is the co-director of the Temple Infant and Child Lab and a leader in the field of developmental psychology. You won’t want to miss it!

 Dr. Brenna Hassinger-Das is a postdoctoral fellow working with Dr. Hirsh-Pasek on Urban Thinkscape—a project marrying architectural design and psychological science funded by the William Penn Foundation. She received her Ph.D. in Education from the University of Delaware, working with Dr. Nancy C. Jordan on developing number sense and mathematics vocabulary interventions for at-risk kindergartners. Her research interests include investigating the role of play and games in fostering learning as well as designing additional intervention studies in both language and mathematics.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Community Design Collaborative. 

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