Playing with knowledge: towards a broader conceptualisation of play in New Zealand schools

By Dr Nina Hood

Over the past few years there has been growing interest in play-based learning in schools. Increasingly, these discussions are not confined only to educators, but parents as well as the mainstream media is also showing an interest (see here, here, here, here).

It’s only recently that I’ve started to think seriously about play. In part it comes in response to the growing interest in New Zealand in the role and place of play in schools. It also comes from being the mother of a 15-month old and experiencing first-hand the power and possibilities of play, and the world of learning and new understandings and development it opens. It, therefore, was with great interest that I read Pasi Sahlberg and William Doyle’s recent book Let the children play; How more play will save our schools and help children thrive.

The book in many ways is anchored in the US education context and the legacy of the ‘No Child Left Behind’ era of high stakes assessment and external accountability, which among other things has resulted in the reduction or loss of recess (interval / playtime) and lunchtime in many US primary schools. It does, however, have some important lessons for New Zealand in the wake of National Standards and the resulting narrowing of the curriculum in many primary schools, and also as a result of changes to children’s out-of-school experiences.

Sahlberg and Doyle spend a lot of time exploring the importance of outdoor free play, and the benefits that this has not only for cognitive function and academic achievement but also for supporting young people’s physical, social, and emotional development. The importance of outdoor free play in New Zealand was brought home to me through a recent conversation with a primary school specialist PE teacher who had noticed a marked increase in the number of students who did not know how to play during interval and lunchtime, as well as a decrease in children’s physical skills during PE lessons. In a culture where children are spending increasing amounts of time indoors and engaged with digital devices, and many children are involved in a growing number of scheduled, extra-curricular activities, this book serves as a timely reminder of the importance of outdoor, free play for children’s (and adult’s) holistic development and wellbeing.

The difficulty of establishing a single definition or conceptualisation of play was also highlighted by Sahlberg and Doyle. They include in the book a list of the various ways that play might be included in the school context. These range from self-directed passion projects, to opportunities for children to build with wooden blocks, to a maths teacher whose “energy and passion ignite high levels of interest and joy among his students”. This discussion of the various manifestations of play is particularly important in the New Zealand education context where I often see play discussed in narrow, uncritical and under-theorised ways. In particular, it is not uncommon to see play placed in opposition or distinction to the more traditional or academic aspects of schooling. However, there seems to be considerable potential to see play as a means for supporting and enhancing academic subjects and promoting the types of deeper learning we want to develop in our schools.

Having deep knowledge of a subject enables us to be playful with it. It enables us to think critically and creatively, to utilise that knowledge in new ways and to explore new possibilities. A couple of times a year I spend a day working with a colleague. She always describes our days together as play rather than work. This is not because we don’t get any work done (in fact we usually are incredibly productive) but rather because these days together are an opportunity to play with ideas. We have intended goals or outcomes for the day, but we have some latitude in the route we take to reach them. We have the opportunity to build on our existing knowledge in order to explore new tangents and new possibilities. It is the act of playing with ideas and new possibilities that leads to new learning.

It seems to me that there is considerable potential to consider how play, and related concepts of innovation and creativity, can be positioned as intertwined with more academic learning in our schools. This is not to dismiss the crucial role of free, unstructured play for learning and development. But rather, it is a starting point for a richer conversation about play in New Zealand schools and how we can develop broader understandings of what it can offer us. What might combining strong knowledge with play in the pursuit of deeper learning offer our students, our teachers and our schools?