I recently read Free to Learn by American Psychologist, Peter Gray. Dr. Gray explains that “in order to foster children who will thrive in today’s constantly changing world, we must entrust them to steer their own learning and development.” He states that “free play is the primary means by which children learn to control their lives, solve problems, get along with peers, and become emotionally resilient.”
To help solidify his argument that children have a high capacity for self-education through curiosity and play, Dr. Gray cites Sugata Mitra’s experiment in India back in 1999. In this experiment, Mitra installed a computer in the middle of one of the poorest slums in New Delhi, where most children were unschooled, illiterate, and had never seen a computer. He turned on the computer and told the nearby kids they could play with it. Over a course of three months, without any adult input, more than 300 kids became computer literate. Mitra repeated the experiment 100 times in different areas of India with similar results. Mitra defined computer literacy as follows:
As a physical education teacher, it made me realize that I sometimes underestimate the power of student learning. Often I spend unnecessary amounts of time explaining directions and giving detailed examples of activities and challenges.
For example, at the end of each marking period, my team and I like to set up stations around the gym for our pre-kindergarten-2nd Grade students. Stations include fitness, manipulatives, throwing and catching, striking, scooters, etc. Yesterday, for the first time, I divided the students up into groups of three and sent them to each of the seven stations. Instead of explaining each station in detail, I simply instructed the groups to stay in their general area, be safe and work together. I was astonished by the cooperation and creativity. As expected, there were a few disagreements, however, this is where I challenged the students to problem solve on their own. Students were creating games and challenges that I could have never imagined through THEIR interpretation.
We recently listed a bunch of partner exercises on our whiteboard. In a given amount of time, partners had to complete the list of five partner exercises as many times as possible. The students and I gave detailed examples of how to perform each exercise with their partner. I now realize this limited their creativity and ability to freely explore movement. It also took away a huge cooperative component in problem solving and communication.
For our next class, we offered the same workout. However, this time we didn’t include examples and explanations. The results were astonishing! We witnessed communication, experimentation, and problem-solving. I even learned there are other, and sometimes more effective ways to do each of the partner exercises.
As an educator who is constantly seeking professional development, I learned a huge lesson from reading Peter Gray’s book, Free to Learn. I need to give children more freedom to explore and create throughout our curriculum. I learned that students often learn best without me over explaining a game or a challenge. I learned that children are often the ones teaching me, as they work together to invent, explore, and create. Finally, I learned the importance of free play at school and at home, and its benefits on our children. Children who are granted the freedom to play are more passionate about learning. They enhance social skills and means to resolve a conflict. They become more emotionally resilient.
Along with PE teachers, ALL teachers and administrators should consider giving students more freedom to explore and play. Taking away recess to increase class time is such a backward way of thinking, yet still exists. Parents could possibly encourage less structured sports and activities, and allow their children more time to simply go out and play. After all, play is a child’s work!
“In a healthy human being, the thirst for knowledge is never quenched.” -Peter Gray
Gray, Peter. Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-reliant, and Better Students for Life. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
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