Why play teaches us skills that make us irreplaceable?

posted in: Future of Work, Learning | 0
Learning through play is no government’s objective, no school’s mission. Yet, more and more jobs require individuals to have precisely the kind of skills that can be acquired and practiced through play e.g. creativity, critical-thinking, resilience, collaboration, etc. This search for valuable and unique human qualities is only going to intensify with the evolution of artificial intelligence and computation of most industries. In the near future, we’ll want to make sure that we’re both adjusting to the new age by harnessing the benefits of technology, but at the same time, we’ll want to make the best use of our potential in the areas where it has a meaning. This process of adjustment won’t be easy, especially with our education systems often getting things profoundly wrong. That’s the reason why I want to talk to you about play. Why play teaches us skills that make us irreplaceable? What are those skills and how to acquire them?
As children we are born to experiment. The early age experimenting is widely known as play. We enjoy a lot of LOLs and our learning curve is the steepest ever. We watch, listen, touch, smell, move and read – use all of our senses – to maximise every opportunity to learn. Later, as we get older, we’re seated in a classroom and we’re told that we can no longer play because it’s childish. We’re introduced to books. Things become much more serious because that’s how a grown-up’s life is supposed to be anyway. The amount of LOLs goes down too. Much of the knowledge we hold about the world around us comes from the early days of experimentation – we’re less comfortable experimenting. Our times of play are forever forgotten and forbidden. Not only we reserve playing to ‘back when I was a kid’ but even when it comes to our children, we regularly place their fun times second “right after you finish your homework” we say. Sadly, we don’t see the gravity of the opportunity cost that comes with excluding play from our lives. I’m going to talk to you about a case study from a small remote island, which demonstrates the value of play to yours and your children’s lives.
Most of the population underestimates and misjudges the role of play in learning.
When my Filipino friend Ivan Zaldarriaga, who’s also an art teacher, invited me to join his class organised by Jof Sering’s art boutique and studio Felice, I was immediately in. Not only was this a brilliant opportunity for me to get back to teaching and learning after building educational technology in London, but I got to hang out with some very talented young people. No matter how small and remote the Siargao island – my current home – is, it continues to open my eyes and offers me valuable lessons every day. The best part is, most of these wisdoms are relevant to wider, global events. Today’s lesson couldn’t be more relevant to the state of education in the western world, so if you’re into teaching, learning or want to know where the future of work is taking us, have a read and let me know what you think.

Eight reasons why play teaches us skills that make us irreplaceable

1. One too few senses

Earlier I referred to books as one of the learning resources available to a modern man. Books are awesome and I always loved to read. Still, reading doesn’t and won’t ever cut it on its own for me. Having 5 perfectly working senses becomes meaningless the moment we take a book into our hands and hope to learn effectively about an experience or a skill. Writing and reading was invented for record keeping and story telling, not for learning how to make a fire or ride a bicycle. It’s the same with any other exclusive learning technique that ignores our ability to engage more than just one of our senses. Diving deep into the learning experience is  what we need more of. Role playing, field trips, or even playing wii is always closer to the real experience than merely reading about it. Education designers should stop seeing learning as a monotone activity. To truly benefit from everything that the modern world and particularly today’s technology has to offer, we need to challenge our thinking and the things we’re used to. How about we completely forgot about books for a minute? What if we couldn’t even read? How would we make learning accessible using the resources we have or perhaps don’t have yet?
We miss an opportunity to deepen the act of learning every time we limit our learning to the engagement of only one of our senses.
 learn through play

2. No Seating Plans

“Let’s all go to the grass, we’ll paint there” said Ivan while the kids fought over chairs around the table. “Today, you’re going to learn how to paint without brush and paper touching” he pointed on the tools in front of him. The kids are instantly captivated. We all move to the grass. There are no seating plans or even chairs for that matter in today’s class. Children not only choose their places but with ease they later change seating arrangements as the session goes on. Here are some of the reasons why. One time, there’s a new colour that originates on one of the papers and everyone moves closer to the author to learn how to create it. Another time, we end up experiencing a very enthusiastic artist who sprays paint everywhere around and the other kids rally looking for less exposed seats. Seating and positioning is definitely a powerful tool. Just think how much impact on people’s behaviour – their collaboration, communication and the attention they pay – can be alternated with theatre style seats, by arranging them around a boardroom table or seating them on beanbags. Seating can either support or hinder one’s learning goals. Any classroom management should start with it, just like the Ivan’s class did. Perhaps there’s a valid reason why seating shouldn’t be permanent and perhaps it’s time we embrace it.
We’re social creatures who like to interact and need to change our perspective every now and then. We can only learn and create so much by being coined to permanent seats.


3. Who Likes Tests?

Nobody’s here to pass any tests or to tick any boxes. The class is conducted in a relaxed, informal way and the only expectation is to come up with unique artwork and have fun. There’s no right or wrong and Ivan patiently answers every question and guides the young artists in making. Kids follow Ivan’s instructions; however, an occasional painting outside the lines isn’t rare. Ivan is totally fine with that and we’re even waiting for an author of the below orange painting to finish her masterpiece. She ended up completely disregarding the instructions after following it only for initial few minutes. If you were in a typical classroom scenario, you’d get punished for thinking differently and for not following the ‘brush can’t touch the paper’ rule. However, if creativity was tested here, the story behind the painting and the process of its evolution would score high. Which one of the feedbacks do you think would encourage the young artist more? Why does the system punish thinking differently? Why did so many world’s geniuses fail at school regularly? One reason could be that building standardised tests is simply an easier way of measurement. You get a textbook, you memorise it and then choose one of the multiple choice answers. Simple as. That’s helluva easier than gamifying teaching and designing  a personalised learning experience that appreciates every individual’s own little genius. So what exactly are those multiple choice tests teaching us? I’m grateful to Ivan and the kids for not stopping the orange painting happen. It made me think a lot about measuring learning outcomes and the fallacy of today’s testing.
Outside the lines is not only where a lot of learning happens it’s also where the magic lives too. When it comes to learning, it’s vital not to block expression of any sorts – ever.

4. Self-organised Learning

One of the greatest advantages of play is the room it provides for kids to be masters of their learning. Seeing Ivan’s approach to class facilitation reminded me of the concept of self-organised learning environment (SOLE) invented by Sugata Mitra. Mitra won a Ted prize for his research, in which he suggests that children have the ability to learn collaboratively, without much intervention from adults. Whilst his approach is pretty unorthodox and it’s been criticised by many, there’s undoubtedly a great amount of learning that can happen when children are empowered and equipped to learn together, alone. I first noticed this when developing and testing education technology Hackaball, at my previous job. The ball has a small computer inside, which can process inputs and outputs and it allows children to hack the ball and make their own games. When there’s a resourceful tool that’s well designed, kids really don’t need to be told what to do, quite the opposite. In Ivan’s class, after the brief initial instruction, there’s no more interfering from him, unless the children ask for help. The collaboration in the class starts with mixing paint. There are 12 colours available and every time the little artists want more unique tones they have to experiment with mixing and blending what they have. Together, they’re hypothesising and then testing outcomes of their theories. The well-known ‘try and fail’ seems to be less burdensome and more fun when done together. In more advanced stages of game play, kids can self-organise completely: come up with rules of the game by themselves, play the game, monitor and judge the results. Absolutely no adults necessary.
The ultimate success of children’s play (and learning) is inversely proportional to the volume of adult intervention.

5. Resilience

Getting hit by a ball? Losing a round of chess? Play is genius. It provides multiple stimulations to the players involved – rewards and penalties. No one likes penalties, however the ability to overcome or to avoid them is what makes us stronger. We learn to accept the possibility of failing, which is massively beneficial for building resilience. Because with play we get to feel everything on our own skin, including the failures, this acts as a real test of our abilities, our patience and our perseverance. We’re obviously incentivised not to fail, that’s the mechanism that sits at the very heart of any game; however, not failing at all is impossible. You’ve got to fail at least once. In Ivan’s class, I’ve seen a few little failures and their nature only affirmed that failing is not about loosing but rather about learning. Kids got the colour mixes wrong, their initial attempts to paint without brushes ended up by painting the grass, their clothes and my clothes. They took a note of their action and next time, they did something differently to get closer to their desired outcome.
Play is an accelerator for resilience building. Everyone who plays earns a degree in failing.

6. 20:80 Theory vs Real Life Skills

The education system as we know it today obsesses with knowledge acquisition through reading. We learn a lot of theory. The theory vs practice ratio is probably something like 80:20. The civilisation of 21st century is over-theorised, it takes us 25 years to become independent from our parents, as graduates we struggle to get jobs because they all require practical experience. How does play fit here you may ask? The profound benefit of play is in its lifecycle. You create or learn the rules, you play the game, you win or loose, you learn from your experience and play again. This is called iteration. Key is to shorten each of the episodes and move on to the next one to learn quickly. Our school education work differently though. We sit in long lectures again and again and again and read and read and read for hours, days, weeks, months and years. Then, and only then we get to practice what we’ve learned. There are a number of threats associated with this approach. First and foremost, it’s incredibly hard to keep interest in it. Secondly, the chances of remembering what you learned after a few years without practicing it are close to zero. Thirdly, even if you do remember it, your knowledge often ends up being irrelevant or outdated. Anything that can be learned through doing should. Ivan doesn’t talk to kids about painting for two hours, he talks about it for one minute. They listen and then test what they’ve learned in a matter of seconds. As they apply their knowledge more and more they begin developing a skill – the ability to pain without brush and paper touching. Anyone who regularly practises this way of learning knows that it’s not just about acquiring one specific skill. Through practical experience we immerse ourselves into all sorts of scenarios and situations, in which we build interpersonal, critical thinking and communication skills as a by product. I’m very pleased to see that more companies today  recruit people without university education, instead looking for proven skills and applied knowledge in candidates’ CVs. This is going to change the way we look at formal education which, in my opinion, is overrated. Eventually, even formal education will shift towards the 20:80 ratio between theory and real life skills. Else, the whole system will die.
Success at passing through traditional, robust education system is overrated. Knowledge and skill acquisition process should follow 20:80 ration between theory and practice, wherever possible to ensure meaningful and relevant learning.

7. Creativity

Creativity. Possibly the trendiest term of 2016 (right after Pokemon). We used to reserve creativity to jobs that had to do with art, but not anymore. Today, creativity tops rankings of the most desirable qualities of tomorrow’s world of work according to Forbes. It’s even been pronounced as our number one competitive advantage over the uprising artificial intelligence wave. “Robots may help us get to where we want to be faster, but they can’t be as creative as humans (yet).” At least, this is what the World Economic Forum argues in their remarks about the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Now, what do creativity and play have in common? Absolutely everything. The ability to be creative equals to the ability to play. The reason why creativity is so intrinsic to the act of play is because play is prevailingly random. Sometimes, we can anticipate next step or even result, but oftentimes, we simply have to think on our feet and work with constantly changing variables. Therefore, playing games of any sorts is an ideal bootcamp for training our creative thinking. Not only we’ll become more employable but we’ll feel more at ease in tricky, unexpected situations.
If you get lost in the woods, fuck it and build a house. I’m off to get some bamboo wood, banana leaves and who knows what else – I’ll figure it our when I get there.

8. The fun part

Is it possible that I wrote an entire post on play and didn’t mention fun at all? Yeah, I didn’t want to sell it cheap but fun is really what’s it’s all about. Fun is inherent to play and it’s what makes things more enjoyable. At the end of the day, we can barely retain our interest in something we’re not enjoying. Fun keeps our attention, it makes us happy and fulfilled and most importantly, it’s best enjoyed when it’s shared.
The ability to feel joy and have fun and to use these as a driving force will hardly be surpassed by any computer for at least decades. We should appreciate it, harness it and nurture it.
I want to thank Jof and Ivan for creating this opportunity for children to develop themselves. I also salute the parents of these lucky few for allowing them to become erudite and fulfilled human beings. Even though this case study focuses on children play, I believe that I demonstrated the benefits of play to you, dear grown-up. It’s never to late to play so please help me bring those LOLs back in!