Most parents consider play as a sheer waste of time and would prefer that their children engage in more “fruitful” activities like studying for exams or doing their homework. It is no wonder that play activities like music and sports are taking a back seat as compared to extra tuition for exams. Hence the hours for those activities are constantly being cut in schools in the attempt to squeeze in more subjects in the nation’s obsession for A’s. Of late, more and more people are questioning the wisdom of a system solely geared towards rote learning – instead of getting students to think, question, innovate or experiment, schools and universities are producing students who are dull, compliant and are unable to express themselves intelligently.
According to a great Dutch thinker, Johan Huizinga, play was not just some ritualized version of life, but its truest expression. “Dogs don’t play in order to hunt. Rather, they hunt in order to give themselves the time and energy to play. Likewise, human beings must learn to understand play as central to our ability to live mindfully and meaningfully.” And in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s groundbreaking exploration into the psychology of optimal experience, Flow, found that “deep satisfaction with work had less to do with the job at hand than the way in which that job is approached. (Get Back in the Box by Douglas Rushkoff, 2005 Collins).
In other words, when play is extended to work, the distinction between work and play is blurred. Steve Jobs, founder of the Apple Macintosh, is a good example of a person passionate about play and who incorporated it wholeheartedly into his company. “Every spare moment I have, I dash back because this is the most fun place in the world….(Macworld, February 2004). For Jobs and his team, the journey is the reward.
All of us have been “programmed” over the years to believe that work and play are two separate entities and that they should not mix. But when we look at children, or even some adults, who approach an activity with deep focus and full engagement, they do not feel that it is hard work. And play should not be limited to the early childhood years alone, for it is an essential element in sparking the creative juices in our brains so that we can come up with new solutions to old problems.
Children’s education should be approached in a similar manner – playful, purposeful and meaningful. When children engage in play, there is a great deal of communication and collaboration which are essential ingredients to successful learning. When children understand the purpose of their learning endeavour, and derive meaning in them, they will be more than willing to dedicate hours of their time into them.
Samanta (12) loves to play games at the computer, particularly those that involve designing such as a restaurant, or clothes or a house. The deeper she goes into the games, the more she is able to refine her skills and innovate new things out of them. She recently learnt to design a quiz game on the internet and started to type in words that she does not normally use, and asked me to help her in her spelling of those words. She also makes use of the chat functions to communicate with her friends to share all kinds of ideas and experiences. So learning for Samanta involves a lot of play at the computer and she is able to harness the internet for meaningful learning that suits her learning style.
Her sister, Amrita (13) uses the internet for research purposes – she knows how to seek out information that she wants and go deep into the search engines for a rare song that she wants or some guitar chords that she needs to learn. She learnt to play the guitar through the U-Tube and she has over the months, perfected her guitar-playing to a respectable level. She has found her purpose and joy in playing the guitar and singing the songs that she likes. She also enjoys playing online quizzes that tests her knowledge of geography, math and science, which she finds very interesting and challenging. By incorporating play in her learning, she has learnt to be a very independent and self-directed learner, and that is what learning is all about!
Arian (5) is the personification of the god of play (if there were such a thing!) as he dwells in his world of fantasy, imagination and creative play, day in and day out. Play = Life = Learning! When he is playing with his best friend, Eu Fai (also 5) they would be so engrossed in their play that they can go without food and drink the entire day! We try not to interrupt them at play, and just watch with amazement how they communicate and collaborate with each other so well. They may be film directors in the making, for all we know!
Que sera sera – whatever will be, will be! If parents and teachers would just lay back and let children play more and work less, then perhaps our nation would be able to wring itself out of the tightly clenched system of uninspired learning and meaningless work! We all need to learn the art of play!
Wai Leng & KV Soon