Why is play important?

A few years back I took a course on Expertise: how experts think, how they become experts, and what it means to be an expert. That course had a huge impact on my thinking. The huge revelation was that “Deliberate Practice” is the only thing that leads people to become experts in any field (Ericsson, 2006). So as the old saying says: “Practice makes perfect”.

But this practice needs to be “deliberate” which means several things, among them, there needs to be some sort of feedback mechanism (possibly a coach or a feedback of a musical instrument, or even a personal reflection). I always thought that practice is very important, but I never realized that this was really everything. There is no magic pill, no inherent talents, it’s pure practice – 10 000 hours of DELIBERATE practice.

Of course there is much more to it than just saying: YOU NEED TO PRACTICE MORE! There needs to be the will to practice (motivation), the opportunity (appropriate environment), and of course there needs to be the appropriate feedback, so that the practice is deliberate. But when it boils down to comparing an expert and a non expert, the expert just put in more time into the field.

Ever since that revelation, I have a completely different view of the world. When I think about how my children learn, how they think, or if I read an interesting article about learning/teaching I go back to that idea, and then it all makes sense.

So it was no different when I read the article “The Death of Preschool” by Paul Tullis in a recent Scientific American Mind (Dec. 2011). The author discusses the recent trend in early education to move from a play-based curriculum to a more school-like environment of directed learning. However, he points out that “just playing” is in fact what nearly all developmental psychologists, neuro-scientists and education experts recommend for children up to age seven as the best way to nurture kids’ development.

OK, but why is play so important? My answer is simple – it’s practice!

When a child plays, he/she decides what and how to play (practice of decision making), how to solve relational problems with other children so that everybody is happy (practice of social skills), improvises with toys (problem solving practice), handles small and large toys (fine motor skills practice) etc. And on top of it all, they are doing it on their own – full of motivation! All we need to do is give our children a safe environment full of varied toys and friends, and then back off! We need to let THEM make the decisions, let them fight it out with their buddies / siblings, etc. They will practice to be independent thinkers, independent decision makers, independent learners. Once we bud in, their independence is shattered, and their practice is done.

Here I interject with a story from my personal life. A few months ago, my 7 year old son noticed that he never got to decide what we were doing on the weekends, that only adults were deciding everything for him. Because of his observation, we decided as a family to take turns on the family activities we do each Sunday. The first weekend was my son’s. He wanted to go tubing for a long long time, and now it was his weekend, so he was excited for the whole week prior to that Sunday that he gets to choose for all of us to go tubing. My husband was not excited at all (he would have preferred to go skiing), but he was willing to go along with the plan. On the day of the trip, the weather turned horrible: -20C with a strong wind. My husband, since he wasn’t excited about the tubing idea from the start, suggested to my son that maybe instead we should go to a brunch and go tubing another time. This one extra piece of information put my son over the edge. He didn’t know what to do. I told him it was his weekend, and that we would do whatever he decided. But he just couldn’t decide. He started panicking (I don’t understand why) and was crying uncontrollably. I was stunned. How can making a decision be so traumatic for a child?

After that incident, my husband and I talked about our son’s behavior to figure out what was going on. We came to the conclusion that he was afraid of failure. That if he decided wrong, he would somehow fail. That’s really what decision making is about, right? You have to decide and then not regret your decision. With practice he’ll learn to be a better decision maker I’m sure. But just like everything else, practicing decision making is essential. And what’s a better way of practicing decision making than free play?!

If you read any of my other posts, you will know that I am all for direct learning. In order for the child to grow, there needs to be an adult showing the child the next level, opening their eyes to the world around them. But I think of this teaching as if I was giving them a new toy to play with. For instance, if I want my child to learn how to add, I will teach my child how to add, give them this skill as if I was giving them a set of lego or a doll. Once they master it, they make it their own, take the skill back to their “independent world”. There they can do what they want with it, as they can with all their other toys.

In the end, I believe a balance between play and direct learning is ideal, with a slant towards playing in the early years. But playing should never cease, even in adults’ lives. PLAY ON!

More reading:

The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance (Cambridge Handbooks in Psychology)

Outliers: The Story of Success

Play = Learning: How Play Motivates and Enhances Children’s Cognitive and Social-Emotional Growth