Defining learning through play
In the LEGO Foundation, our work is about changing how people think about "learning through play". So, it's not surprising that people regularly ask us for a definition. For us, learning is the process of acquiring knowledge, skills, and attitudes (preferably those that help to develop creative, engaged, lifelong learners).
Play is an activity which provokes a playful state of mind. Therefore, learning through play is the process of acquiring knowledge, skills and attitudes in a playful state of mind. It's the most amazing and creative way of learning.
Why define learning through play by focusing on the state of mind ("playful") rather than the activity ("play")? It's because the range of activities that have been described as play is apparently endless, yet two people can engage in exactly the same activity and disagree over whether it was play or not. So, while we cannot easily define play, we always know it when we experience it ourselves. Play is how we think and feel when we do things.
The amazing thing about a playful state of mind is how perfect it is for great learning. When we talk to people who have been playing, they have frequently lost track of time. They become completely absorbed in the activity. They're in the flow. In a playful state of mind the normal rules of life can be changed or suspended, so when something doesn't work it's not failure but an opportunity to try again; this is a foundation for creativity and innovation where it’s essential that we take more risk and push the boundaries. Because play involves all our senses, it engages multiple regions of the brain, which seems to makes the experience much more memorable.
When we look at the science of learning, research tells us that we are likely to learn best when we’re active rather than passive, engage in meaningful and relevant experiences rather than study theory in isolation, learn with others rather than alone, and are intrinsically motivated rather than extrinsically rewarded. In other words, good learning is inherently playful.
Because learning through play is about "how" you learn, it need not be constrained by "what" you learn or “where” you learn. Imaginative teachers have shown that there are no limits to what can be learned in this way in the classroom while outside the classroom families and children have been pushing the boundaries for centuries. Indeed, when you start thinking about learning happening outside school as well, you quickly realise how the environment around us (eg, a forest, a food shop, a museum, a park) creates many more possibilities for learning. Children who learn through play usually develop many other skills (cognitive, social, emotional, physical, creative) at the same time.
Contrast this with traditional formal learning ... the clock is going slowly, the motivation is the distant desire to pass the exam, and the main senses stimulated are the sight of words on the page and the sound of the teacher speaking. Often, the goal is to memorise knowledge rather than also to develop supporting skills and attitudes. Bringing play into this type of classroom is not easy for the teacher, but it's transformational for the children and their development.
Perhaps the best thing about being playful is that children don’t need to be taught the skill and it doesn’t just happen at school. Babies start learning through play with little encouragement soon after birth. It's as natural as crawling, walking and talking. It’s a skill for life that supports life-long learning. As George Bernard Shaw said, “We don't stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing”.