February 15, 2019

Navigating the paradoxes between play and school: Bringing together how children learn and how teachers teach

Ben Mardell

Learning and teaching should not stand on opposite banks and just watch the river flow by; instead, they should embark together on a journey down the water.

-Loris Malaguzzi

In our first blog post we outlined six core beliefs about playful learning in schools. The headline: it is important to bring more learning through play into schools, and this effort is neither easy nor straightforward. One reason for the difficulties: the paradoxical nature of play and school.*

What do we mean by paradoxes between play and school? Well ...

Play is timeless; players lose themselves in play.  School is time tabled.

Play can be chaotic, messy, and loud.  Schools are places of order.

Play involves risks.  In school children should be safe.

In play children are in charge.  At school the agenda is generally set by adults.

One can characterize the uneasy relationship between play and school in other ways as well:  school leans toward right answers while play is open-ended, or school is about the transmission of culture (from how to spell to the scientific method) while play is about creating culture (inventing stories and rules). Regardless, the paradoxical nature of play and school can either be paralyzing and polarizing, or (we hope) energizing in efforts to bring more learning through play into schools.

Paralyzing. Picture the novice teacher who, in her teacher education program, has read that children learn through play. In her new job, she meets an array of learning standards. She can’t “just let the kids play,” but then what?

Polarizing. Recall the acrimonious debates between progressive and traditional educators. For example, should blocks be included in kindergarten classrooms. While debates can be healthy, in schools these disagreements can lead to different camps who work at cross purposes. 

Energizing. Here we remember the great physicist and statesperson Niels Bohr, who once exclaimed, “How wonderful that we have met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress.” With this kind of playful mindset, it is possible for educators to see the paradoxes between play and school not as either/or situations, but as yes, and’s. Educators can work together to support their students in taking reasonable risks and not getting seriously hurt (physically or emotionally). They can create environments where students experience agency and learn important skills.

Navigating the paradoxes of play and school requires educators willing to engage together in the complexities of education. It requires a pedagogy that brings together how children learn and how teachers teach. It brings children and teachers together on a journey down the water.

*Our thanks to colleague David Kushner for alerting us to these paradoxes through his work