THE BLOG
11/11/2015 10:02 am ET Updated Nov 09, 2016

Unlikely Bedfellows? Cambridge University and the Lego Company

"Play" has become a 4-letter word -- something to tolerate until children "grow out of it." Yet numerous studies document the importance of play for young children's socio-emotional growth, academic and physical development. Despite this research, our public schools minimize the frequency of play in classrooms. Play is seen as frivolous, time-consuming, and non-productive. Rather than engaging children in a playful way to heighten their engagement and motivation, children are turned into passive recipients of teacher knowledge. Yet research supports the fact that inviting playful conversation, collaboration, and inquiry -- "guided play" -- are more effective for making new learning "stick" and usable. Guided play invites children to participate actively in their own learning alongside an adult who takes their point of view.

At home, much the same thing is happening as children have less time for unsupervised free play alone or with peers. Now, with the advent of tablets, apps and digital games, children have fewer opportunities for guided play. American parents seem to believe that technology is a boon to their children: If it has a battery, a toy must be superior to one without. Even an app book must be better than those old-fashioned ones with the pages you turn.

Given that children learn a remarkable amount from interactive play with adults, our laboratories tested whether guided play between parents and children was enhanced or hindered with electronic toys. In two separate studies we found that parents talked more with children playing with traditional toys than toys with batteries. One study (with Jennifer Zosh, Brian Verdine, and Nora Newcombe) asked families to play with shape sorters -- either electronic or wooden ones; the other study (with Julia Parish-Morris, Neha Mahajan, and Molly Collins) had parents read a traditional book versus an electronic book with all the bells and whistles to their child. Special effects are distracting! Batteries are not always better; children had more opportunity to learn from parents without batteries.

Recently, Cambridge University announced a partnership to the tune of four million pounds with the Lego Foundation for a new center for research on play called PEDAl -- Play for Education, Development, and Learning. Human children have a lengthy childhood compared to other primates, ostensibly for the purpose of participating in active, engaged, meaningful, and socially interactive learning about their world. These qualities of experience are all embodied in play! Play is the vehicle through which children grow their brains and creative capacity.

Sitting in a magnificent dining hall in St. James College built in 1514, near a library built by Christopher Wren, and just yards away from the laboratory where penicillin was discovered by Alexander Fleming, Cambridge's vice chancellor Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz talked about why play must be studied in the academy. Borysiewicz quoted from Fleming who described his work as "playing with microbes, " displeasing his colleagues and likely partly responsible for his late entry into the Royal Society. Fleming also did "germ paintings" made of differently colored bacteria. His imaginative approach was part of his scientific genius.

Unless play undergirds our learning and thinking, we jeopardize future discovery. Borysiewicz continued that Cambridge University wanted nothing less than to better the world and this is why they paired with Lego. Reinvigorating the study of play is serious business; our future depends on creative innovation born from moments of playful delight.

This attendee felt elated: I was witnessing a watershed moment in the recognition of how humans learn and advance.