Sunday, May 22, 2022

The Uneasy Relationship Between Play and Educational Outcomes

Jeanne Vergeront
Vergeront Museum Planning

A query on ChildMus several years ago captured a tough situation so many of us face so often. 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. From a rumpled copy of my reply to him and notes on how museums struggle with similar versions of this expectation, I’ve explored the uneasy relationship between play and the quest for educational outcomes. What follows is the core of my response on ChildMus with some changes for flow and clarity and more recent thoughts on managing the relationship in favor of play. 

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

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 easy way to reconcile these interests, it would be a mistake to abandon play in favor of measurable educational outcomes even with the promise of funding. 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 in order to serve the interests of children, museums, and their communities. 

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, play, moving, or experimenting. Without the agency of the learner, repetition, revisiting and connecting past experiences; without time, and social and physical interactions with objects, materials, people, ideas, and the environment, learning does not occur. 

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 generally in relation to others. Regardless of their experiential approach, museums serving children 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 missing the mark, moving, and making connections among objects, tools, materials, and environments. Even without museums setting any measurable learning outcomes for them, children will learn in rich, engaging museum environments. It happens through play. 

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

Photo credit: Reggio Children

Play, a Powerful Strategy for Learning. From infancy on, children are naturally drawn to play
which adults label variously as: sensory, exploratory, construction, physical, imaginary, and dramatic play. Most often, play is a seamless mix of all of these and exploration and learning. Understood as freely chosen, personally directed and intrinsically motivated, real play embodies qualities critical to learning as well as to children’s well-being. 

The learning that occurs through play is unlikely to resemble the kind of learning we think of in schools delivered primarily through instruction. Active, fluid, joyous, iterative, 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). 

This is precisely what makes meeting a request for measurable educational outcomes fundamentally problematic. If children direct their play—which is a key criterion of free play—then no one else but the child can really set the educational outcome for their play. 

While play’s benefits do not appear as tidy, measurable learning units, they are no less valuable. Their value is of a different, and essential, nature. Real 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, linguistic, and cognitive domains, boosting the whole child. 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. 

Framing Play’s Benefits to Children. While museums for children may be passionate about the value of play, they have generally not been successful in articulating play as a valued and productive strategy for learning. “Play is learning” is not a convincing case for play. Communicating how play is a productive strategy for learning must draw on relevant research and be supported by observations of how play appears in various conditions. Without this foundational understanding, museums chase others’ priorities, adhere to cherished beliefs, and fail to follow-through. 

Museums must be proactive in defining the benefits of play for children rather than try to construct ill-suited educational outcomes. Advancing play as a credible strategy requires understanding play, integrating strategies fully across museum experiences, and gathering evidence of play’s benefits. 

Foundational experiences of greatest importance to the museum. Building a convincing case for play begins with a museum focusing on where it believes it can contribute to positive change in children’s lives. It can look to foundational experiences that provide solid underpinnings for a good start in life and to the attitudes, dispositions, and skills that research indicates valuable throughout life and encouraged by play. Not facts, math problems, calculations, or the direct results of structured activities, foundational experiences are among the life dividends, benefits, or impacts of play opportunities. Benefits might include a child feeling connection, acceptance and belonging; a growing sense of competence; or having a enjoying well-being and optimism. 

A focused set of dispositions, skills, or awareness important for children now and in the future is critical. Developing a deep understanding of foundational experiences, dispositions, and understandings is neither quick nor easy. It involves delving into research and learning what these experiences might look like in this exhibit, at that component, in this interaction, or in that program. While a museum may come across a list of possible benefits of play, it can’t simply import that list, from a recent study or from an admired museum. These attitudes and dispositions must align with 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. 

Photo credit: Vergeront
Creating the conditions for play. Exhibit and program experiences and staff engagement create the conditions for play which include a supportive and relevant context; engagement with others; touching on multiple play patterns; rich and varied materials; and prolonged play episodes connected to the play benefits of highest interest. The better aligned a museum’s play opportunities are with specific components, activities, images, materials, and caregiver, staff, and volunteer interactions, the more likely children will have the opportunity to tap into and exercise those dispositions. Multiple play experiences, during one museum visit, on repeated visits, connected with everyday experiences, are part of the growth and development process for children. 

A theory of change. Connecting the museum’s experiences with the impact it hopes to have is its theory of change; it describes how and why a museum expects desired changes associated with the play opportunities in its environments, exhibits, programs, initiatives, and events. For a museum with an established play approach, a theory of change suggests that children spending more time in rich, varied, connected play experiences with others that they themselves direct will enjoy benefits of, for instance, a sense of well-being, a growing feeling of competence, understanding other perspectives and feelings. 

Benefits, Action. These are not short-term educational outcomes, but are life-time benefits of play. While not measurable educational outcomes, play-related benefits laid out in a theory of change and logic model demonstrate focus, an understanding of relationships, and rigor. Connecting the pieces logically also provides a critical foundation for being explicit about what those changes might look like for children, their parents and caregivers, and community. 

A theory of change provides a museum with a plan for action. The focus, connections, and reasons for believing change is possible lead to identifying impacts and results that can be noticed, described, made visible, and measured in various ways. They can be expanded and carried forward and change lives. No less important, these are the steps allowing a museum to clearly communicate the value of its work to others–including its community and funders that want to support its work and its purpose.

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