A scrumptious recipe...for learning

Hmong children playing with balloons. Photo by Vianh Kiet via  thefavweb

Hmong children playing with balloons. Photo by Vianh Kiet via thefavweb

Gastronomy and education have much in common. We need to eat in order to live, the same way we would cease to exist both as individuals and as a culture if we did not learn. Both are innate impulses in humans. That's why nobody needs to remind us that we must feed (hunger does the job), as we do not stand waiting for someone to tell us it's time to ingest knowledge: we learn continually, inevitably, without even noticing, without even intending to. But the best thing about this is that learning, just like eating, is a pleasure. It should always be. This said... I'd like to invite you to a banquet.

A banquet whose ingredients will delight your five (or nine) senses, at the same time it will stimulate curiosity, motivation, initiative, imagination. Ingredients which will help us grow and construct ourselves as people. For that, to me, should be the goal of education. I will start with the star ingredient, that which all kids love and which should always be present in any recipe for them, including learning. It's most healthy, needs no preparation and boosts your endorphins. Its name is "play" and it must always, always be served free.

Free play is not just an activity. It is, above all, a state of mind which enables us to learn new abilities and to find creative solutions. A state of mind which positive psychology has named "flow", but which buddhists and taoists were already familiar with, and associated with practices such as meditation. It is a state of openness and focus, of (paradoxically) relaxed attention, free of anxiety and stress (just the opposite of the tension and fear we experience under any situation where we feel assessed), and which enhances, among other things, our capacity for logical reasoning. Maybe because, when we play, we allow ourselves to make mistakes1.

For too long, play has been considered merely as a recess from intellectual activity (hence "playtime"), and the fact that, through play, children learn to interact, to trust, to empathize, to read body language, to understand the meaning of rules, to face reality on a physical, emotional and intellectual level, to find out what's important to them, to make decisions, to overcome their fears, to improvise and to dream has not been fully understood. What children learn through play is, essentially, to live. Or, even, to save their lives (go to minute 1:20):

Play is not a break between learning blocks, it is learning itself. Let's trash the idea of increasing –or decreasing, for that matter!2– playtime: the only way to make learning meaningful is by allowing children to play, as much as they want, whenever they want.

Like with all things good, there's no ersatz for this splendid ingredient that play is. What for some time now has been hawked as "learning through play" is no more than sweetening a learning process which is still being guided, imposed and designed from outside, which does not originate within the child, from his or her own spontaneous inquisitiveness and curiosity; organized play will not do –rules are already set, there's no compromise between peers, no room for innovation nor the chance to step out of bounds. Neither will play which is played for a reward, or which is played for the sake of winning, since the reward for real play is, simply, to play.

A child living in the city plays at home under the vigilant eye of his parents, or else is accompanied by them to a place built for the purpose of playing and where, moreover, the games one can play are determined by specific equipment and toys: going down a slide, swinging, spinning, climbing and little else. These places are so insufficient and predictable that they suppress any impulse to invent or imagine. At three years old, at six, at ten, the same games in the same place.

Francesco Tonucci, When Kids Say Enough is Enough

If we want children to play –to really play– we should let them look for another ingredient that they will not be able to learn about in textbooks, and that we won't be able to buy them at the supermarket. An ingredient which flourishes in open spaces and languishes in classrooms. The only ingredient that can bring out the best in every child: freedom.

1 Peter Gray, in his book Free to Learn, tells of an experiment where children as young as two were able to solve logic problems in the context of play whereas they seemed unable to solve them in a serious context.

2 In the US, 40% of elementary schools has eliminated recess –or is considering doing so– on account of it being considered "risky" and "a waste of academic time" (Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods).