Power of Play: Applied Knowledge, Engaged Learning

04/24/2015 05:16 pm ET | Updated Jun 27, 2015

Greg Young

"Daddy, why is this squirrel not moving?"

Henry is sitting there, squatted over a very dead squirrel. It was at this moment that I realized I was totally unprepared to introduce the concept of death to a 2 year old. Do I say the squirrel has gone to heaven? Or, try to explain what happened? All of a sudden it dawns on me that I still don't have the answer to a lot of big questions, much less what to tell Henry about the squirrel. The biggest one being how do we want to "formally" educate our children. We live in rural Vermont, tucked in with some corn fields and woods. Brushing aside these bigger questions, I moved on to the task at hand. I mustered as much positive energy as I could to describe the basic concepts of the life cycle.

After sitting there for another few seconds Henry says, "So he's like Nana?" Nana had passed away a few months earlier. "Um, yes Henry, like Nana." We had not discussed Nana's passing with Henry, but yet he had heard and knew. And there I was, reminded at how amazing these little people truly are, and how much I have to learn!

My wife and I have both taught for a number of years in progressive public schools. The last few years have made us think deeply about how we want to educate our children, and to revisit how that influences our work in public education.

Nurturing the spark

One of the things that both my wife and I firmly believe and want to pass along to our children is for them to truly love learning, and to become lifelong learners. Dennis Littky (co-founder of Big Picture Learning and the Met School) will frequently ask educators, parents, students to think of one word students use to describe school. You already know the answer, a unanimous "Boring!" Education should not be boring, but often times school is. There is a critical difference between the terms learning, education, and schooling. Often these are thought of as the same thing, but in reality there is a difference.

Two Mark Twain quotes that I think illustrate this balance nicely are "I try never to let my schooling get in the way of my education," and "Never let formal education get in the way of your learning." A Psychology Today article takes this a step further by declaring first of all that schools are prisons, and secondly that "joyful learning requires freedom."

Our boys are interested in all kinds of things, they are very active, and love being outside. With Henry turning four, and Harrison about to be two, we see a brewing conflict with traditional school and the dispositions of our kids. Henry is currently infatuated with the following: volcanoes, pirates, construction, and skiing. He can explain the difference between dormant and active volcanoes, and has a loose understanding of plate tectonics. Harrison on the other hand is really into music and animals. Harrison has learned when to stop petting the cat (tail flicking and the angry purr), and likes to play bongos and kazoo at the same time.

We feel that it is very important to enable our boys to pursue their interests, and while we both work or have worked in the public education system, we are finding it hard to balance the ultra personalization of our kids education with the fact that, for example, volcanoes aren't really part of the VT standards until 5th grade. But back to Twain and Littky. We want to encourage our boys to follow their interest and passions, with a focus on learning and growing. To do this we need to be tuned in to their social-emotional needs (soft skills), and continue to support them further in their learning.

Power of Play

Think about the last thing you learned "for yourself," meaning not a work-related or formal school objective. Maybe it was cooking, or a new hobby, or something else. Chances are, you immersed yourself in doing this new activity, read lots about it (including Wikipedia), watched YouTube videos, maybe had some mentors or friends who you consulted as experts. It may not have felt like "learning" but in reality it probably was. I posit that this is because of the playful approach to it, "This is something fun that I enjoy and want to get better at."

In Creating Innovators and in TED talks, Tony Wagner talks about the role of play as a stepping stone to passion, and then purpose. By fostering engagement through play, young people eventually discover a true passion, which can then turn to purpose. One of my good friends was an animal lover growing up, he interned at a local animal shelter all through high school and college, embraced veganism, and is now the Director of a large animal shelter in Massachusetts.

Play can also foster pathways for young people to safely explore risks and taking chances. In an inspiring article about a different kind of playground in England where kids build forts with old wood and metal, light their own fires, and generally play with limited adult supervision. The Atlantic draws some powerful research together about what kids can learn by taking risks. The research points to deep social-emotional growth (aka the "soft skills" that are in demand by companies and lamented as being absent from high school graduates). Here in the states, schools like Gulliver Tulley's Tinkering School advocate for letting little kids use power tools and play with fire.

Lastly, part of play as an educational tool, is in blurring the lines between imagination, reality and experiencing new things. Play doesn't always have to look exactly like recess. In fact daydreaming is another method that is encouraged to allow for deep neurological connections to be made and for ideas and information to be processed. Neuroscience research, highlighted in a recent New Yorker article points to the importance of allowing kids brains to be able to wander and process what they have observed, seen, and done during the course of a day. Many modern schedules of school and out of school activities don't leave room for this important element of development.

Role of technology

We have spent a lot of time thinking about how best to use technology with our children. It is telling that many Silicon Valley parents eschew technology in schools they send their children. And while we have tried to focus on limiting screen time with our boys, they both know how to navigate on an iPad and are clearly interested in anything bright and glowing! While they watch their share of Curious George, Sesame Street, and other age appropriate content on the iPad, we are trying to introduce technology as a tool for creation, not simply consumption. This is hard to do, as the devices are tailored to deliver content.

But so far Henry has been able to make basic interfaces using Makey-Makey, and Little Bits that we were able to get from a local library. We also highly encourage the use of LEGO, which while not "tech" necessarily, does lead to more of the idea of creation vs simply consumption. We've yet to introduce them to Minecraft, however that will probably come along at some point, and there are lots of examples where Minecraft can be used as a learning tool (even in some traditional classrooms).

My professional work is partly in the world of online learning, and yet I don't view technology itself as a silver bullet to "fixing school", rather I see technology as a tool, that we want our boys to be able to use to extend their own learning. Technology has a role for sure and we want to be very intentional in this department.

Where we're heading

For us, all of this points to unschooling, a branch of homeschooling that focuses on students interests. We think that is the direction we are going now. At the end of the day, we want what is best for our children, and so we will continue to listen and support them as best we can. Maybe that means some traditional school settings, taking online courses or using some web-based learning tools. It also means learning with them, finding dead squirrels and exploring teachable moments.

This blog is part of our Smart Parents Series in partnership with the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. Do you have a story to share about how you create powerful learning experiences for your children? Leave us a comment below or join the conversation on Twitter with #SmartParents. For more information about the project, see:

Greg Young is an educator and administrator with the Virtual Learning Academy in New Hampshire as well as a school design coach with Big Picture Learning. Follow him @gyoungvt.