July 26, 2019

A surfing lesson: Staying in touch with playful learning

Ben Mardell

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to spend two weeks in South Africa. The first week I attended the Africa Play conference in Pretoria. The second week I visited schools and early childhood development centers in the Eastern Cape and Free State. Over the weekend I found myself on the Wild Coast, a beautiful stretch of beach on the Indian Ocean between East London and Durbin.

The first morning on the beach I noticed a sign advertising surfing lessons. I have never surfed. I have never been on a skate or snow board. I don’t have great balance, nor am I particularly coordinated. So naturally I thought: why not?

The next morning found me and Keegan, the instructor, on the beach with a surf board.

Surfs up on the Wild Coast

Headline 1: I was a disaster as a surfer. I never stood up on the board. Never got close. Even laying on the board, I managed to wipe out in spectacular ways.

Headline 2: I had a great time. I loved being in the water. I enjoyed the new challenge. I even enjoyed wiping out, getting flipped over in the waves. If I had the chance, I would definitely try again.

And my surf lesson prompted a few reflections about playful learning:

Playful learning is important for beginners.

Beginners fail. They fail a lot. Play is the perfect venue for this failure. Just like the four-year-old who thumbs through a book but is not reading in the mature sense of the word, my surf lesson was low stakes. I could try and try again. And then eventually say, That’s it for today. Not a revelatory insight. This is the reason why one is most likely to find play in school at the start, with young children, and at the beginning of learning experiences for older students.

Playful learning may be equally important further along in the learning process.

Between my unsuccessful attempts to stand on the surf board, Keegan and I chatted. He said something that really struck me: “When surfing gets really frustrating is after you’ve learned to stand. Then there is so more to learn. How to make turns. How to read the ocean to get the right wave. And it’s really frustrating when you aren’t getting better.” How can educators help learners push through the frustration that comes after the start (a situation not unique to surfing)? By creating spaces where risk taking and failure are accepted and expected; by keeping the process playful.

Stay in touch with your own playful learning.

In the business and stress of adulthood, one can easily lose touch with play. At the Bryandale Preprimary School outside Johannesburg, South Africa, teachers intentionally stay in touch with their own playful learning in order to do a better job teaching. Every Friday they arrive early to work. Gathering together, they take turns picking a game or an activity to play. Principal Gillian Leach explains, “As learning through play is a primary strategy for children, we want to play as well.” The staff’s Friday play concludes with a debrief. Teachers’ reflections have led to the realizations that in games where a player picks someone for the next turn, “it feels bad to be left out,” and that in games with a lot of movement, physical contact is inevitable. As Gillian explains, “We were always moaning at the kids for bumping into each other. Now there is more understanding towards the children when they collide.” Gillian does not know in advance how the teachers’ play will unfold or what conclusions they will make from their Friday mornings together. She, like her staff and the children at Bryandale, are engaging in the joy and complexities of playful learning.

Now that I’m back in Cambridge, there aren’t many opportunities to surf. But I just saw a sign for mahjong lessons. Perhaps a blog post on that is coming.