How playful learning will build future leaders

Learning through play with 'hands-on, minds-on' approaches is a powerful way forward. Play gives children space to dream, discover, improvise, and challenge convention.

Don Campbell/The Herald-Palladium/AP/FILE
Corbin Belin, 11, from Stevensville, Mich., sorts through his LEGO collection at during a LEGO Bricks Building Competition held at The Heritage Museum and Cultural Center in St. Joseph, Mich., on Saturday, March 15.

In order for our global society to develop solutions to pressing problems in an increasingly technology-driven and constantly changing world, we need to re-train our workforce to do what machines can’t: to be enterprising, independent, and strategic thinkers – to be purposeful creators.

This starts with changing the way students, especially the youngest ones, learn.

They’re the future, after all, and they have a serious evolutionary need for play, as described in Scientific American magazine:

In a classic study published in Developmental Psychology in 1973, researchers divided 90 preschool children into three groups. One group was told to play freely with four common objects—among the choices were a pile of paper towels, a screwdriver, a wooden board and a pile of paper clips. A second set was asked to imitate an experimenter using the four objects in common ways. The last group was told to sit at a table and draw whatever they wanted, without ever seeing the objects.

Each scenario lasted 10 minutes. Immediately afterward, the researchers asked the children to come up with ideas for how one of the objects could be used. The kids who had played with the objects named, on average, three times as many nonstandard, creative uses for the objects than the youths in either of the other two groups did, suggesting that play fosters creative thinking.

Learning through play with “hands-on, minds-on” approaches (not workbooks) is a powerful way forward. Play gives children space to dream, discover, improvise, and challenge convention. It’s crucial to social, emotional, cognitive and even physical development, helping them grow up “better adjusted, smarter and less stressed,” as the Scientific American study reports. We know this.

So, where did play go?

Over the last three decades, while schoolchildren K-12 have become better test-takers, they’ve also become less imaginative, according to many experts in education, including Kyung Hee Kim, a professor of education at the College of William and Mary.

In 2011, she analyzed scores from the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking and found that: “children have become less emotionally expressive, less energetic, less talkative and verbally expressive, less humorous, less imaginative, less unconventional, less lively and passionate, less perceptive, less apt to connect seemingly irrelevant things, less synthesizing, and less likely to see things from a different angle.”

“The largest drop,” as author Hanna Rosin points out in The Atlantic, “has been in the measure of ‘elaboration,’ or the ability to take an idea and expand on it in a novel way.”

In other words, we’re in the midst of a creativity crisis. In an age where we’re desperate for new answers to old questions, and for children to more readily step into leadership roles as innovators, this is a problem.

The good news: There are high-impact innovators who are dedicated to bringing back play in a big way. They’re rethinking the process of learning, inspiring children and allowing for constructive and productive disobedience. (Mistakes, too.)

“Play is not a luxury,” says Johann Olav Koss. He’s on a mission to use sport and play to educate and empower children and youngsters in disadvantaged communities so they overcome the damaging effects of poverty, conflict, and disease. Mr. Koss, a Norwegian speed skater who broke ten world records during his career, serves as president and CEO of the international NGO Right to Play.

Koss, his staff, and 13,500 volunteer coaches, reach more than one million children each week. They use games and active, play-based learning methods as tools for education and development. Soccer, for example, is used to teach tolerance and games of tag drive home points about national health issues.

“Every child has the right to play, not only because it is fun, but because it is critical to their education and healthy development,” he said, after receiving last year’s LEGO Prize, awarded by the LEGO Foundation (dedicated to redefining play and re-imagining learning to build a future driven by creative, engaged, lifelong learners) to individuals that have made an extraordinary contribution on behalf of children and young people.

The American Academy of Pediatrics would agree with Koss. Last year, they concluded that play, whether organized indoors or outdoors, “is a necessary break in the day for optimizing a child’s social, emotional, physical, and cognitive development.”

That increasingly obvious truth is also why Jill Vialet, the founder and CEO of Playworks, has been working to reintroduce play to a US education system in which nearly half of schools have reduced or eliminated recess to free up more time for core academics, where one in four elementary schools no longer provide recess to all grades, and where more than three-quarters of principals actually take away recess as part of their discipline plan.

“If we want to bring out the best in our kids,” she says, “we should start by giving them a great recess.”

Playworks works. It has positive impact on the “climate” in schools, making for a better and more productive school day, according to experts at Mathematica Policy Research and Stanford University’s John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities.

They found that Playworks, currently operating in 500 schools in 22 US cities, improves conflict resolution and academic performance, and it reduces aggression: teachers in the test group reported increased feelings of safety, and reports of bullying and exclusionary behavior during recess were almost halved.

Vialet plans to reach one million students by 2016.

The world we live in is no longer ordered by industrial efficiency or repetition, but the exact opposite: unpredictability. But we still educate for factories – “educating people out of their creativity,” as Sir Ken Robinson would say – while today’s employers demand “changemaking” skills that include communication, teamwork, empathy, critical thinking, and imaginative problem-solving.

If we want a better, smarter planet, we need to change the way the next generation children are taught. Allowing more students to grow up without those prosocial, exploratory skills, leaving them unable to reach their potential, would be criminal.

Play can deliver.

What are we waiting for?

Editor's Note: The LEGO Foundation and Ashoka have teamed up in a new initiative titled the Re-imagine Learning Challenge, aiming to transform the way the world learns. Visit the website for more information on the program -

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to