Saturday, January 9, 2016

The Uneasy Relationship Between Play and Educational Outcomes

Among the queries on ChildMus in 2015, one in particular caught my attention. A museum educator asked for suggestions in dealing with a funder request. The funder wanted to support exhibits with specific measurable educational outcomes for at-risk children at his museum, a museum geared towards play and primarily serving 4 and 5-year olds. A rumpled copy of my reply resurfaced recently. That, along with recent work on outcomes, impacts, and a logic model for an art museum, reminded me of how museums struggle with similar versions of this expectation.

A push to close the achievement gap and show results is frequently at odds with a value on children’s play in museums, preschools, kindergartens, and at recess. While there’s no simple way to reconcile these well-intentioned interests, it would be a mistake to abandon play in favor of measurable educational outcomes. Similarly, it would be irresponsible not to work at making visible the value of play for children in museums and other settings. The need to move beyond a collision of these perspectives is imperative to serve the interests of children, museums, and their communities. What follows is the core of my response on ChildMus with some changes for flow and clarity.

The situation you describe around play vs. measurable educational outcomes is one we can all relate to and one that is frustrating. I agree with some of the responses you’ve received about play and educational outcomes. And I would go further, laying out an approach that explores what play can deliver in the spirit of play and equivalent to outcomes. The organization that wants to support exhibits with specific measurable outcomes for at-risk children is well intentioned but misunderstands some basic realities about learning, museums, and play.

The Nature of Learning
Learning does not occur through a single episode, a well-structured brilliant lesson, or even one-on-one tutoring on a specific concept. Not in museum exhibits, programs, and not in schools. That’s not the nature of learning. 

Learning is the accumulation of experiences a learner has, connects with, and makes meaning of through sensing, reflecting, thinking, and talking. That’s largely true regardless of age, setting–school, museum, program, or exhibit, library, playground–or strategies such as reading, playing, moving, or experimenting. Without the agency of the learner, relentless repetition, revisiting past experiences, time, and social and physical interactions with objects, materials, people, and the environment, learning does not happen.

Professionals in museums and other informal learning environments need to be clear about the nature of learning themselves as well as educate stakeholders, partners, and supporters about this. Clearly others are doing a better job of insisting on educational outcomes for play than play advocates are at communicating the value of play.  

As learners we construct our understanding not from a single experience or source, but from a variety of episodes over a stretch of time and often in relation to others. Regardless of their learning approach, museums serving children can take advantage of this. Children will learn about the world–or the slice of the world an exhibit invites them to explore–by engaging, comparing, experimenting, watching others, asking questions, trying and failing, moving, and making connections among objects, tools, materials, and environments. Even without museums setting any measurable learning objectives for them, children will learn in rich, engaging museum environments. It happens through play.

Play, A Powerful Learning Strategy Play is a powerful strategy for learning. From infancy on, children are readily drawn to play in its many forms: sensory, exploratory, construction, physical, imaginary, and dramatic play. Understood as freely chosen, personally directed and intrinsically motivated, play embodies qualities critical to learning as well as to children’s well being.

This, however, is what makes meeting a request for outcomes difficult. The learning that occurs through play is unlikely to resemble the kind of learning we think of in schools. Active, fluid, joyous, play crosses domains and disciplines. Isolating moments as evidence that math or science learning is taking place or a child has learned a particular concept is elusive (and illusive).

While play’s benefits do not appear as tidy measurable learning units, they are no less valuable. Their value is of a different nature. Learning is unlikely to occur without motivation. The curiosity that characterizes play is an urge to find out more, reduce uncertainty, and get at more complex or inaccessible aspects of the world. In play, learning crosses affective, emotional, physical, and cognitive domains. Children gather information about materials and test their properties through play. The capacity to think counterfactually, connecting facts not ordinarily viewed together, emerges spontaneously during pretend play. In building tall and wide, climbing and testing physical abilities, taking on a role, and negotiating story ideas, children’s competence and confidence grow. Through play, children learn what is essential for life that others cannot teach them.

The uneasy relationship between play and measurable outcomes is also visible here.

Articulating Play’s Benefits 
While museums for children may be passionate about the value of play, they have generally not been diligent in articulating play as a productive strategy for learning and its benefits. A convincing case for play cannot be made with simple statements such as, “Play is learning,” but must be constructed and fully integrated across museum experiences. A solid understanding of skills, concepts, dispositions, or awarenesses important for children now and in the future is essential. It must draw on relevant research, be supported by observations of how this appears in a particular museum. Without this clarity, we simply chase after others’ priorities, are limited by personal preferences, and fail to follow-through.   

When we can’t point to the change we believe is possible for our visitors, we are not able to contribute to those changes deliberately, advance play as a credible strategy, or cultivate support among funders and friends.

An approach to building a convincing case for play starts with a museum identifying particular skills, attitudes, and dispositions where it believes it can contribute to a positive change for the child through play experiences at the museum. These are dispositions, knowledge or skills that research indicates emerge from play. Not facts, math problems, calculations, or the direct results of activities, they are recognized as possible dividends, benefits, or impacts of play. These benefits could include, persistence in getting desired results; becoming more exact in using a skill; enlarging a working vocabulary by describing materials more precisely; trying a new skill in a different situation; communicating coherent narratives; or feeling a sense of well-being and optimism.   

This may be a fine list of possible benefits of play for a museum; a museum can’t, however, simply import a list from here, from a recent study, or from an admired museum. Skills and dispositions must emerge from a museum’s larger purpose, knowledge of its audience and community, and its own expertise and capacity to create engaging experiences likely to impact children in desired ways.

Developing a deep understanding of a set of skills, dispositions and understandings is neither quick nor easy. It involves delving into research and what these experiences look like in this exhibit, at that component, or in this program. • Observing how mastery of a material or tool looks for a 3-year old or 7-year old child. • Developing a shared understanding of how what an enhanced vocabulary might be for children with fewer experiences and with more varied experiences. • Considering how these dividends might benefit parents and caregivers and a community.

Delivering Play’s Benefits to Children
We are accustomed to think of a museum’s work as creating exhibits and programs and managing collections or archives. Those activities, however, are in service to larger purposes. For museums focused on play, the larger purpose relates to delivering play’s benefits to children and through them, to the community. Exhibit and program experiences and staff engagement create the conditions for play: engagement, interactive experiences touching on multiple play patterns, and prolonged play episodes connected to the play benefits of greatest interest. The better aligned those play benefits are with specific components, activities, images, materials, and caregiver, staff, and volunteer interactions, the more likely children will benefit. 

Connecting what the museum does to the impact it hopes to have is its theory of change. This describes how and why it expects desired changes associated with the opportunities offered in its exhibits, programs, and events. For a museum with a play approach, this theory of change suggests that more children spending more time in rich, connected play will enjoy those benefits. It can also touch on how these changes might benefit parents and caregivers and the larger community.

While not the same as measurable educational outcomes, specific play-related benefits laid out in a theory of change and, hopefully, a logic model demonstrate comparable interests, efforts, and rigor. Connecting the pieces logically also provides the necessary foundation for being more precise about what those changes look like for children, their parents and caregivers, and community. Furthermore, a theory of change provides a museum with a plan for action. The focus, connections, and reasons for believing change is possible will lead to identifying outcomes that could be characterized as measurable. No less important, these are the steps allowing a museum to clearly communicate the value of its work to others–including funders that want to support its work. 

 Resources on learning in museums, skills, dispositions and executive function
• Deborah L. Perry. (2012). What Makes Learning Fun. Lanham, MD: Alta Mira Press

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