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Hold On to Your Hobby Horses: Fueling the Debate on Playful Learning

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We are often shocked by how the media crafts simple headlines from complicated 60-page scientific papers. The good news is that they offer a tweetable sound bite that is easily digested by parents hungry for the latest news about how to raise their children. The bad news is that headlines rarely contain the nuances so carefully woven into the fabric of the paper. One example is a recent headline on Science Daily, "Pretend play might not be as crucial to child development as believed, new study shows."

In a superbly researched review in the Psychological Bulletin, Professor Angela Lillard and her colleagues at the University of Virginia evaluated over 150 scientific papers asking whether pretend play CAUSES improvements in language, literacy, creativity or problem solving. So, when Johnny pretends he is a knight in shining armor and Julie pretends she is fighting a fire- breathing dragon, do these age-old activities fuel the development of the 3R's?

Lillard says the answer is "it depends." She claims that the data are so weak that little can be said conclusively. But even Lillard owns that for language and literacy, fighting a fire-breathing dragon or having a fictional tea with the queen confers some benefits. Children who play more talk more and develop richer stories and vocabulary. The data are not so clear though, for creativity and problem solving. But stay tuned!

Does this well researched review mean that we should keep our costumes at home, reserving school for "real" work as we set play aside? Does it mean that play is not as crucial to development as many of us believed? Nope. The headline here is misleading at best.

Pretend play is merely one kind of play among many. Remember recess? Research by top scientists like Anthony Pellegrini at the University of Minnesota acknowledges the importance of recess for spurring physical activity in an otherwise sit-at-your-desk kind of day. In recess you are liberated from the classroom and can let off steam. Kids are even more attentive and ready to learn after they play on the macadam then when they are not given a chance to go outside.

Then there are board games. Researchers Bob Seigler and Geetha Ramani from Carnegie Mellon University found that playing games like Chutes and Ladders helped support math -- kids learned concepts in nine separate math domains just from playing an ordinary board game! Our own work shows the value of playing with blocks for learning spatial language -- words like above, through, over and under -- language that undergirds STEM learning in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. And researchers like Silvia Bunge from UCLA demonstrate how seven-year-old children can use playful games to learn to think logically. No joke.

Since the time of the enlightenment, philosophers like Locke and Kant have linked play to learning. But as Lillard demonstrates, it is critical not only to do studies on the meaning and value of play, but to do them right. Even if play had no value beyond enjoyment, it would be worth understanding as a phenomenon that has been around since before the beginning of recorded time.

So let's not take the dress-up corner out of the classroom. That kid on the hobby horse who is rounding up those imaginary buffalo might just be the kid who is learning the vocabulary of the Wild West. Words like varmints, stampede and trail can come in handy in when he describes his stock holdings in years to come. Most importantly, Tex (nee Irving) is actively engaged in meaningful learning and having fun at the same time. That is an equation for real success in school!