What Does Learning Look Like?

May 27, 2011

There is a magic moment where play, work and learning all look like the same thing. It’s when the participants are engaged, interactive and open, and the process becomes the focus. Sometimes the moment looks like children taking turns and laughing in a game of  “Mother May I.”  It can be in a group of children carefully crafting a castle out of a tower of blocks – and starting over again to make the structure sturdier when somebody knocks it down.  It can occur as the string is let out slowly on a colorful kite, and we watch what happens when it’s caught on the wind. The moment sometimes arrives wrapped in the silly consonants and onomatopoeia of a “Swamp Song.”

The moment might be seen in a little boy running around the room with a “magic wand” that looks like a paper towel tube. It might sound like giggling children curled over their knees on the floor pretending to be turtles. (Oops! A “snapping turtle” just grabbed another student’s leg!) It could look like a game of  “going to the store” in the dramatic play corner or like a child quietly scooping water into a bowl again and again and watching it overflow. It could make itself known in a girl bent over a desk carefully creating a picture of a snail with backyard leaves, pebbles, a glue stick and an orange crayon.  It’s in the rapt attention paid to an engaging story or a child with a toy truck who just realized he can’t fit all the blocks into the back and so he makes two trips across the carpet, “vrooming” all the way.

I’ve been caught up in the magic while sitting in front of a computer experimenting with techniques to create the image I need for an assignment. In that moment I am not focused on the end result, only in the experience.  I am fully engaged – caught up in the process and the flow of creation. Work has become play. Learning has becomes play.

In The Power of Play David Elkind, Ph.D. identifies these 9 elements that often occur in that magic moment where play, learning and work merge:

  1. There are clear goals
  2. There is immediate feedback
  3. There is a balance between challenges and skills
  4. Action and awareness are merged
  5. Distractions are excluded
  6. There is no worry about failure
  7. Self-consciousness disappears
  8. The sense of time becomes distorted
  9. The activity becomes an end in itself

Sure, eventually we make judgments: Did we accomplish what we set out to do? Was the assignment completed? Do we know something we didn’t know before? Have we added to our skill set? Can we use what we’ve learned? These are good evaluative questions. They address the goals and intents of learning and working. But the moment where these things were accomplished? Well, that was play.

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2 Responses to “What Does Learning Look Like?”

  1. chidinma udezeh Says:

    Play is certainly component of the learning process, be it through use of manipulatives, blocks , centres or even the silly songs you mentioned. I must also mention that children need a structured, systematic and all inclusive methodology to aid the learning process. A method that works best is the one makes their learning visible, ie making learning work, by presenting our lessons through visual & concrete aids vs abstract.

  2. Play Coach Says:

    I agree. A firm structure and an informed methodology can become almost “invisible,” allowing the learning to take place in what feels like an open environment.


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