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Reflections on a Day at the Museum of Play

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

I recently had the opportunity to spend a day at the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York. While it was certainly fun and provided a very enjoyable nostalgic trip for me, the museum also proved to be an amazing resource for educators or anyone interested in play, its role in society, and its power as an educational medium. Having spent the day reading the information provided about the science of play and soaking in quotes from prominent educators, psychologists, historians, sociologists, and other great thinkers, I came to the very clear realization that we are educating wrong at the most fundamental level.

Here is some of the most important information I learned at the Museum of Play, my reflections on what each piece means, and why I think it all adds up to the fact that we are doing our children a disservice by not basing our educational systems on play.

Justin Marquis at the National Museum of Play in Rochester NY. Photo by Gene Darter

Tidbits from the National Museum of Play

Elements of Play
The chart below describes the six key elements of play and the stages that people go through when they engage in play. Looking at these elements and the kinds of skills, abilities, and knowledge that they help people develop, this seems like an excellent match as a foundational philosophy for the way that education should work in the 21st Century. Why can’t we have these as primary goals for our schools and universities? If educators start students with anticipation, surprise, pleasure, understanding, strength, and poise as the foundation of their lives, there will be very little that they cannot accomplish.
Table outlining the six elements of play. From the National Museum of Play in Rochester NY.
(National Museum of Play)

These elements support not only knowledge acquisition in the traditional sense (anticipation, surprise, pleasure, and understanding), but they also provide a strong basis for the all-important 21st Century skills that are one of the most critical aspects of being successful in the Digital Age. Understanding, strength, and poise, for example, are exactly the necessary attributes to allow students to become global thinkers, innovators, collaborators, and dynamic problem solvers. Refocusing education with these elements of play as the underlying goals fits the needs of 21st Century learners.

"Life must be lived as play." – Plato
This quote, attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher, is profound in its simplicity. When coupled with the unattributed quote "Kids make no separation between fun and learning," we begin to see the profound potential that play holds as a learning modality. Why would one of humanity’s greatest thinkers place so much emphasis on play? Because he was aware of the truth of the second quote, not just as it applies to children, but as it applies to learners of all ages. A life of play, embodying the six elements of play, helps foster a culture of lifelong learning that can propel individuals and society to great new heights of learning and understanding in all areas. As author G.K. Chesterton put it, "The true object of all human life is play."

"Almost all creativity involves purposeful play." – Abraham Maslow
Most famous for his "Hierarchy of Needs," psychologist Abraham Maslow clearly had some brilliant insight into the human psyche and what motivates us. This take on the creative power of play, further illustrates that insight. If creativity truly does involve purposeful play, as he claims, and creativity is also a key ingredient for success in the Information Age, then structured and focused play should be a key element of our educational institutions. Play is one way of fostering the creative spirit in students. But that is not the only importance of play according to the displays at the national Museum of Play.

Child development expert Joseph Chilton Pearce is quoted as saying, "Play is the only way the highest intelligence of humankind can unfold." Perhaps creativity is that highest intelligence. Einstein certainly believed that imagination was an important sign of intelligence, and Pearce would seem to confirm it. Yet creativity and imagination are not generally cultivated in our factory model schools. Shifting our priorities to support innovative thinking and individuality, rather than conformity, not only aligns with the way the world works in the Information Age, but could potentially unlock previously untapped potential in human thought and creativity. Play is one method of accessing this potential as this quote by educator and TV personality Fred Rogers explains, "Play is the process of finding new combinations that yield new forms of expression."

"Play absorbs us. Play floats us away. We dive into play." – National Museum of Play
This unattributed quote from the Strong provides further insight, not into the effectiveness of play for learning, but for the power of engagement that play provides. Too often education is seen as work, drudgery, or something essentially devoid of engagement. Great teachers can be engaging, but the current model of learning employed in the U.S. has little to do with enjoyment. On the contrary, the current model emphasizes repetition, compliance, and silence. In effect, education is training for work, and generally for repetitive, industrial work at that.

The overlap between education and work is and should be a real one. This quote from the museum further emphasizes that point, "Work isn’t the opposite of play. Not every job is fun, but not all jobs are work." There is no reason that education and the jobs that it leads to cannot be enjoyable and provide a lifetime of satisfaction. Some of the emphasis of our educational system should be on finding careers that are engaging, satisfying, and even fun. Play, such as role playing, simulations, video games, or other forms of imaginative fun all provide a way of testing roles and imagining what life would be like in a certain profession. And through play, this experimentation happens in a way that absorbs the learner far more than conventional education.

"The eyes discover. The mind plays." – National Museum of Play
The Museum of Play also provided significant insight into the physiology and psychology of play. The quote above is from a display about the functions of human sensory organs. In this model, the job of the human mind is to play, experiment, or manipulate the reality that the other organs bring to it. Play can train the brain to do this manipulation by providing fantastic scenarios which push the player to adapt to new ways of thinking, new information, or even entire new ways of perceiving reality or imagined realities. Play allows people to play with the laws of physics, for example, in order to better understand the world around them. The information taken into the brain from a game as simple as Angry Birds can engage learners in thinking about physics in new ways and gaining an intuitive grasp of concepts such as trajectory, velocity, and force, that they may not technically be conceptually ready for. This point is emphasized by another quote from Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, "In play a child always [behaves] above his average age, above his daily behavior."

Play represents a realistic approach to pushing all learners beyond their current level or perceived learning ability. It also allows for a more individualized approach to instruction in which each person has the opportunity to progress at their own pace and as far as they can. With play as the model, learning can become a constant for all students and the time during which it happens can be more variable.

"Play is training for the unexpected." – Marc Bekoff
A final takeaway from my day at the Strong Museum of Play is summarized by the quote from behaviorist and cognitive scientist Marc Bekoff, which echoes a point that I have made in the past. Play is a natural phenomenon, exhibited by many animals, not just humans, as a way of training their young for the challenges they will face in the world we live in. We live in challenging political, social, and economic times and should be taking advantage of every tool we have available to help our young people prepare to survive in the world. Play may be the most powerful and effective tool we could use for this, as indicated by this unattributed quote displayed at the museum,  "When understanding combines with strength, poise is a natural outcome of play." Poise, strength, understanding, pleasure, surprise, and anticipation are the key elements of play according to the chart above, I would add creativity to that list in order to form a complete picture of why play should be considered the key factor in the fundamental change that is needed for our educational system.

Even a relatively simple strategy game like Stratego, Risk or multiplayer Halo online can train the brain to solve problems, particularly when new strategies or obstacles are encountered. I am always excited when I encounter someone cheating in Halo and can develop stratgies to still be competetive despite being put at a disadvantage by their tactics. Any experience can teach as long as you are willing to embrace it as such.

"A child loves his play, not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard." – Benjamin Spock
Our educational system is at a crossroads. Our K-12 schools adhere to an outdated industrial model of education even though we are firmly in the Information Age. Higher education is under fire for not teaching students enough real world skills or providing sufficient value for the cost. New models of learning, from formal online education, to MOOCs, and other free educational options spring up on a daily basis to push traditional institutions in new directions. Despite all of this pressure, few educational reformers have considered that a fundamental shift in what learning should be is really the answer to changing our system to meet the needs of 21st Century learners. 

Play as a foundation for educational change works well for all the reasons mentioned to this point, but more importantly for the very reason given in the Dr. Spock quote that introduces this section, "A child loves his play, not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard." Learning is hard and should be. Effort and perseverance are essential to success in anything and reimagining education at all levels as an experience that is so enjoyable that students want to give a maximum effort can only have positive results for the learners involved, their parents, teachers, and society as a whole. It is time to stop thinking about education as work or a chore and begin trying to maximize the potential of schooling for all learners from birth through old age by making it fun and natural. The most efficient and obvious way to do that is through making play the focus of education as it has been throughout human history, prior to the invention of formal education, that is.

Join me every Friday on Twitter to discuss game-based learning and gamification. This week I’ll be discussing my visit to the Strong Museum of Play. Follow the hashtag #GBLFriday and be sure to tag your questions and comments.