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Open-ended education and the importance of ‘play’- Jan 21, 2012

Almost on cue, today’s ‘Open House’ at the school (Shikshantar) my kids attend addressed the importance of play for children. The connection of the school’s presentation to my experience at SPA yesterday was astonishing and I’m attempting to draw some relationships here between early education, higher education and professional practice.

‘Play’ is loosely defined as an activity that children (and I think it applies to young and older adults as well) want to do, use their imagination and creativity in, do spontaneously and has an objective (in itself) that may not be apparent to those not involved. In essence, play is an open-ended exploration of whatever the child has on her mind. Instruction deters play and parents were being urged by the school to try and provide the time and space for open-ended, unsupervised play, offering a safe environment for children to simply be! Research has demonstrated strong correlations between this kind of unstructured, open-ended, spontaneous activity and cognitive learning. Children who engage in play are better socially adjusted, have better critical thinking abilities, are more tolerant, etc.

Open-ended, unstructured learning reduces as students move into middle and senior school and, strangely, further reduces during undergraduate courses. To me, that seems ludicrous and I remember a group of us hotly debating this with our teachers back when we were in SPA. The explanation we got was that students would not produce any work if there is no deliverable, no deadline. It was an issue of a lack of trust in the capability of students, but also the knowledge that students have not been oriented to this sort of self-motivated learning from school.

So there you have the problem and a partial answer. To expect undergrad students who can ask questions, be tolerant of conflicting opinions, debate and discuss openly, we need to give children the opportunity to explore and develop their minds through their education cycle as well as in the home environment. Sounds simple, but in a world driven by competition, results and the urge to constantly instruct, it’s one of the toughest things for parents and educators to implement.

Why were things slightly better in our times? Because we had slightly less stressed parents, less isolating lives at home, other children (cousins, friends) to play with, our early lives were not filled with back-to-back instructions-brain-o-brain classes, tennis coaching, dance, music, tuition and what have you. We didn’t have ‘play dates’, we simply played.

Kids are cornered from both ends. While we had structured school, but plenty of unstructured time at home, many children nowadays have structured school and home time. It’s a frightening situation, where they are cornered with no time of their own. Don’t we adults crave me-time, to indulge in pleasurable activities? Then why do we dare to presume what is ‘desirable’ (read appropriate) to our children instead of letting them be and letting them choose for themselves?

I guess the only thing we can do is recognize the need for open-endedness and unstructured time and trust that learning will happen if these were to be provided along with some good inputs and exposure!


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