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While a worldwide consensus that learning is important for healthy child development exists, there is still much misunderstanding about the learning process itself. Many of today’s education systems have been built on the premise that learning is “serious work” and that teaching should primarily (and sometimes exclusively) focus on content mastery and the acquisition of an important, but discrete, set of academic skills. Under this paradigm, play is regarded as off-task behavior, more fit for recess, lunch, and extra curricula activities, and less fit for the classroom (Wohlwend, 2009). As Nancy CarlssonPaige reflects:

…never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that we would have to defend children’s right to play. Play is the primary engine of human growth; it’s universal – as much as walking and talking. Play is the way children build ideas and how they make sense of their experience and feel safe. . . But play is disappearing from classrooms. Even though we know play is learning for young kids, we are seeing it shoved aside to make room for academic instruction and “rigor (Strauss, 2015).

As Carlsson-Paige’s remarks suggest, this perspective tends to ignore accumulated evidence from neuroscience research and early childhood learning literature which clearly establishes that play is both foundational and necessary for learning. Play nurtures the whole child – intellectually, emotionally, physically, socially, and academically – and as such is unquestionably positive (Wohlend, 2009). Play “provides avenues for children not only to explore their environment and build their personality but to also construct knowledge that is unique to them” (Ogunyemi & Ragpot, 2015). Play therefore is essential to, and not a distraction from, learning.

The prevailing approach also fails to consider emerging findings from the marketplace that identify play as a critical factor in facilitating creativity and innovation, and stimulating the acquisition and exercise of transferable skills (leadership, change management, problem-solving, and teamwork) by adults. As the National Institute for Play points out,

[t]he practices that organizations need to be developing for their increasingly complex information work are those which infuse the state of play into their workers’ attitudes. They need to learn how to do the work of their organizations in a play state.

With play deprioritized as it is in most primary and secondary education systems, it is not surprising that millions of young learners feel increasingly dejected, disconnected, and disenfranchised from the learning process, and that their schools continue to struggle to make learning relevant to the outside world and productive for life and livelihood beyond the classroom (UNESCO, 2015).

Thankfully, in international development circles, there is growing appreciation of the need to rethink education. In 2015, Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO confirmed that,

The world is changing – education must also change. Societies everywhere are undergoing deep transformation, and this calls for new forms of education to foster the competencies that societies and economies need, today and tomorrow. This means moving beyond literacy and numeracy, to focus on learning environments and on new approaches to learning for greater justice, social equity, and global solidarity. Education must be about learning to live on a planet under pressure. It must be about cultural literacy, on the basis of respect and equal dignity, helping to weave together the social, economic, and environmental dimensions of sustainable development.

There is however no consensus yet on what these new approaches should be and how content and pedagogy should be reframed for today’s learners. In this series of blogs, we’ll try to unpack learning through play, as we try to understand its potential role as a catalyst for game-changing education across the world.