Actually, there’s not a right answer to that question. Because inherent in the question is a false dichotomy – that learning and playing are somehow separate activities. Sadly, in many schools, that’s what they’ve become.
For me, the toughest of our founding principles to explain to the non-initiated is that we believe that in great schools, Students are Architects of their own learning. Why is it so important that high school kids have an active, creative role in their own education? What if they make bad choices? Will they actually learn anything? Won’t it lead to anarchy?
I was thinking about all of these questions as I read an article by evolutionary psychologist and Boston College professor Peter Gray. “The Play Deficit” is something of an executive summary of his recent book Free to Learn. In both, Gray breaks down the false dichotomy of “learning” vs. “playing,” and introduces the radical idea that when humans are given the freedom to follow their passions, they learn things they never could have had they stayed in the classroom. Things like empathy, a sense of responsibility to themselves and others, creativity, teamwork, and resourcefulness.
Aren’t these the very qualities that our kids most need to lead fulfilling, successful lives?
Now, we’re not advocating abandoning a rigorous core curriculum. Rather, we realize that it’s applying the knowledge of organic chemistry, or statistics, or American history that truly leads to mastery. That’s why we’re so excited about the project-based learning we’re introducing at The New School.
Check out Peter Gray’s article in Aeon for some great examples of kids learning from play.