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The Three 'P's: An Education System Where Play is its Own Reward

Today's post is from Chris Mercogliano author of In Defense of Childhood: Protecting Kids' Inner Wildness. Mercogliano has been a teacher at the Albany Free School since 1973 and co-director since 1985.

Cover of In Defense of Childhood links to Beacon Press page for book It was heartening to see the New York Times tout the importance of play in school settings. But how sad that the excommunication of play from American culture has reduced the discussion of its value to the question of whether five percent of the school day should be sacrificed to recess; or God forbid, should it be ten?

Let me lay my bias out straight. For thirty-seven years I have been involved with an independent school for students ages 2-14 in which students spend the overwhelming majority of their time playing. And by this I don't mean learning games or organized sports, although they sometimes participate in them too. What I'm talking about here is play as defined by Jean Piaget: "actions that are an end in themselves and do not form part of any series of actions imposed by someone else or from outside." Real play, in other words, is its own reward. It involves imagination, improvisation, and quite often the natural world. It's when kids engage in making-believe, horsing around, and inventing their own games. It's when they paint, or draw, or sing, or dance, or write a poem or story, not in order to fulfill an English or art assignment, but to answer the call of the Muse.

A great many observers consider our approach, which I once teasingly described to a dubious Alfie Kohn as the "summer camp" model of education, to be romantic or naive, if not downright irresponsible or crazy. A dose of play here and there is fine, certainly. As the Times article noted, kids' brains need a rest once in a while. Their bodies also need exercise, and everyone recognizes the vital role of play in social development. But at the end of the day, learning is serious business and a lot of hard work.

Or is it? Let's examine the evidence for a moment, which increasingly confirms the fundamental contributions play makes to every aspect of a child's growth.

We could begin with Piaget's immense body of research, which was based on decades of laboratory interactions with thousands of actual children, as well as the high-magnification observations of his own kids at home. He determined play to be so crucial that he wrote an entire book about it, his reasoning being thus: The kind of learning from which true knowledge follows isn't a matter of passively absorbing and storing skills and information. Rather it is an active construction process, the building blocks of which are the kinds of discoveries that emerge from real play, whether it be with objects, ideas, or other people. This is obviously the case early in the game--just watch toddlers learning to walk and talk. It's not work to them; they play at it. However, the same also holds true at higher conceptual levels. Through their play children have already discovered the basic laws of gravity and motion long before their first physics class. In fact, Piaget asserted, playful discovery underwrites the kind of learning that is supposed to occur at every stage of the model of development for which he is now famous.

Piaget unfortunately didn't have available to him the hard data that the rapid advances in brain scan and neurochemical analysis technology have provided in the three decades since his death. His goal had been to establish a fully biological theory of learning; but he was a little ahead of his time, leaving his ideas to be dismissed by many as quasi-scientific, and to be ignored by the conventional education model almost entirely.

Meanwhile, the latest research in biology, cognitive and developmental psychology, and neuroscience, when adequately synthesized, absolutely supports Piaget's intuition about the vital role of play. For example, according to psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan's recent Self-Determination Theory, infants are born with an innate drive to understand and master their worlds. Fueling that drive is the biological and unquenchable desire to investigate the novel aspects of their environment, and to be "persistent in their attempts to make them familiar." And novelty, of course, is the basic ingredient of play.

Deci and Ryan's theory is based on the fact that the brain is by design a novelty-seeking system. Novelty, it turns out, is one of the brain's primary criteria for deciding which input to attend to and which to ignore as it attempts to sort through the constant flood of stimuli from the outside world. Then, when we encounter novelty our brains release large quantities of the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, two of a handful of powerful hormones that modulate the functioning of the nervous system. At the neural level, dopamine and serotonin activate the brain's attentional networks and energize all of the cognitive areas of the brain that cooperate to make learning happen. Likewise, pleasure, real play, and rewarding interactions with others also encourage the flow of dopamine and serotonin.

The neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp confirmed these basic principles of brain functioning with his pioneering studies of the play behavior of young rats. For instance, Panksepp discovered that the more rat pups engage what he tongue-in-cheek calls RAT, or "rough and tumble" play, the more developed are the cognitive centers in their brains. Conversely, the pups that were drugged out of their instinctive play urges proved unable as adults to negotiate the same challenging mazes that adults who had played normally learned to solve with relative ease.

Numerous other researchers studying a variety of mammals have demonstrated that depriving their test subjects of social contact during early developmental phases resulted in the permanent impairment of cognitive, social, and emotional capacities. It's no wonder, according to psychiatrist turned neuroscientist Allan Schore, who recently completed a massive investigation of the neurological roots of human child development. Schore points out that when an infant is born, the emotional centers in the brain are fully operational, while the cognitive centers begin as a vast sea of largely undifferentiated and unconnected neurons. The young child's "thinking brain" is waiting for social and emotional experience to shape the neural networks that will support the unfolding of intelligence.

Returning to Panksepp for a moment, when he shifted his focus to the neurochemical processes involved in the human brain's ability to pay attention, he made two very important and interrelated observations: the processes mature much faster in some children than in others, and as the dopamine that enables kids to focus and control their own impulses matures, the desire to wrestle and romp naturally begins to subside. The reason, says Panksepp, is that this energetic and highly social form of play has completed its developmental contribution and is no longer needed.

Unlike many neuroscientists, Panksepp himself spells out the educational implications of his findings, and he doesn't mince words in so doing. He decries the "widespread pathologization" of RAT play in schools today, which he sees as a primary cause of the decreasing ability of some kids to sit still, successfully attend to mental tasks, and regulate their own impulses and emotions--and not the absurd notion that there is an increased incidence of a genetic neurological disorder in American children. He says it is "unconscionable" to give them "anti-play" drugs such as Ritalin and Adderall, which chemically suppress the desire and the energy to play, and instead to artificially boost the activity of the brain's attentional center by the supplying the missing dopamine, rather than allowing lots of time and space for RAT play. If kids get to fulfill their biological need to play, argues Panksepp, then they will gradually and naturally acquire the ability to meet the academic demands of the classroom.

Neuroscientific findings such as these have led psychologist Daniel Goleman, author of the groundbreaking books Emotional Intelligence and Social Intelligence, to conclude that the joy and delight that accompany play, discovery, and friendship are the developmental fuel of childhood. To me as an educator the findings represent hard scientific evidence that an approach to education grounded in the three 'P's--pleasure, play, and personal relationships--isn't so crazy after all. Indeed, when a school enables its students to build a solid foundation on the three 'P's, mastering the three 'R's isn't hard work at all. That's why the majority of our students, unless they come to us with significant learning or emotional difficulties, are able to achieve the same skill sets as children in conventional schools in a fraction of the time. For them, there's nothing serious about the business of learning--and why should there be?

You might also be interested in Chris Mercogliano's previous posts at Beacon Broadside about reading to kids, establishing (ADHD) drug-free school zones, and Michael Phelps.