Monday, February 13, 2017


I receive a fair number of newly published early childhood/teaching books, often unsolicited, with the idea that I'll write a review or otherwise promote it on the blog. I don't read them all -- indeed, I only tend to read those that come from authors who I know or who previously contacted me. I'm sure most are fantastic books, but I only have so much time, and even if I do read the book, there is no guarantee that I'll hype it here.

These guys have invented a game they call "bumper swings." They get the tire swing in the middle going side-to-side, then strive to avoid getting hit.

I hope that each one of these books finds it's audience, even if I'm not included in it, but there is one type of education book that really, really gets under my skin. Last week, I receive one such book. I don't want to embarrass anyone, so I won't share the title with you, but it's ostensibly a book about children acquiring STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) learning through play. They quote Mister Rogers:

"Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood."

Nice. They go on to talk about how children learn best through play, how they tend to be holistic learners, and generally promote the idea of play-based learning. Then they make this ludicrous assertion: "The idea of integrating science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) into learning centers is relatively new." If they mean, relatively new in terms of the history of the universe, then okay, but animals have been learning science, technology, engineering, and math through play since there have been animals. In fact, almost everything any human has ever learned has come through play.

It's a game that involves science, technology, engineering, and math, among other things .

Once one gets past the opening pages, the book disappointingly goes on to instruct adults on how to set up activities that contain elements of play or that seem playful, but that require the adult is to continually "tell" or "explain" things to children, or to "have" them do this or that, and to generally boss the kids around, essentially turning what could be meaningful, child-directed opportunities to learn and explore into formulaic, adult-directed marches through material. The comedian Stephen Colbert coined the term "truthiness" to describe those things that sound true, but really aren't: I'm going to claim the term "playishness" to describe those things that might seem like play, but are really just exercises in direct instruction using toys and art supplies instead of lectures and text books. Often you will find these sorts of things under the heading, "play with a purpose," a sure indication that what you're going to read about is not play at all.

I have no idea what they are learning from their game, but I do know they are learning because they find it engaging enough to choose to play it again-and-again. When they choose to stop playing this game, that will tell me they have learned what they wanted to learn from it.

First and foremost, play is a self-selected activity. The moment you have an adult "telling" you things or "explaining" things or "having" you do things, it is no longer play; it's direct instruction, a type of teaching that this book's authors argue against even as every page is about how to get children to learn what the adult thinks they ought to know rather than, as happens in a true play-based curriculum, leaving the children free to both ask and answer their own questions.

This is what learning through play actually looks like.

The research is quite clear, as the authors point out, that play is how children learn most naturally, including the so-called STEM skills. The book even has the word "play" in the title, but it's all just playishness used to disguise the same old top-down, adult-driven, tick-box style of learning that already makes school a place where so many children lose their love of learning. Play is about freedom to pursue one's own learning and the more free we are, especially from adults always telling us what to do, the more we love to learn. 

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1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for your thoughts on this. I'm still trying to separate authentic play from 'playishness'. Are there any books you can recommend so help me erase what I have learned in college ece courses? I would greatly appreciate it.