Learning Through Play
By Beverley Paine
As a child, I remember visiting friends who
had LEGO®. The little interlocking bricks, with their precise
engineering and clean lines, immediately appealed to me. I loved the
tidy little houses with the opening doors and windows and smooth red
roofs. Each birthday and Christmas I asked for LEGO only to be offered
some other toy. I knew that one day I’d have children and they’d have
“Toy” is a rather a demeaning description of this clever
manipulative construction material. My dictionary defines toy as
something meant for amusement rather than serious use. LEGO serves both
purposes. It is a plaything and can amuse for many hours, but the real
value in this children’s toy comes from the hidden learning quietly
happening behind all the play.
Anyone who has visited our house can attest to our
apparent addiction to LEGO, with our ever expanding collection of
plastic bricks reaching mind boggling dimensions. When April turned
three she received her first LEGO car and trailer, a set that is still
in almost complete condition. A LEGO tractor decorated the centre of
Roger’s first birthday cake. By four he could quickly assemble sets
using instructions in less than half the time of kids twice his age.
Thomas has never known life without LEGO. Their huge collection gave
them greater diversity of play and model building. As they grew they
became extremely selective, choosing sets that enlarged the usability of
Although I valued play as a major component of an
educational curriculum, I never fully understood why play is such a
powerful learning medium. For years I slotted in school-type learning
activities into my children’s highly imaginative and constructive play,
often interrupting the flow and disturbing the game. My subtle emphasis
on what I considered to be a more valuable use of time undermined the
value of play. It took me a long time to realize that my children, when
playing, were actively engaged in a superior form of learning,
effortlessly and efficiently teaching themselves things that would take
many hours with contrived lessons.
Play with LEGO encouraged manual dexterity and good
hand-eye coordination, and helped with classification and spatial
skills. I watched the children move from solitary play, to parallel play
and then to cooperative play. I heard April dictate play scripts for
Roger, and, as his confidence and assertiveness grew, watched how he
became more involved in the organization and structure of the games.
Play allowed them to role play and assimilate, in non-threatening and
controlled ways, disturbing incidents in their own life. They built
amazing models and scenes which duplicated things they’d recently seen.
I watched them stretch their imaginations to devise simple and complex
machines, setting themselves tasks that challenged them into new
cognitive thresholds. They worked hard to earn the money they needed to
continue building their LEGO collections, thus learning many new skills
in different areas.
Life was always imitated in play. After a trip on an
historic tram, Roger built an intricate model, complete with platform,
track and overhead rails. A town grew up around this model and a game
was played for days. A tour aboard a ship produced several sailing
ships, built without instructions, using memory and imagination. The
ensuing game needed islands, fortresses and towns and lasted more than a
week, with intense periods of concentration and play.
It’s easy to dismiss this activity as simply playing.
However, a game of pirates was incomplete without frequent reference to
the encyclopedia or books from the library on the subject, complemented
by a trek down to the video shop. The movie The Mutiny on the Bounty
sparked discussion about Australian history; another model soon
appeared, and Cap’n Roger became William Bligh. The children made swords
from plywood; fierce battles were fought on and around the newly
decorated cubby, an imaginary sailing ship. The technology and work
skills used in such games goes well beyond the initial manipulation of
little plastic bricks.
The most elaborate LEGO houses have adorned April’s
floor. We began building our home a few months before her birth, and
haven’t stopped building since. So it’s no wonder that April is an
expert at LEGO house construction! It was a lovely surprise to arrive
home one day to find she had built a to-scale
model of our home, complete with furniture. Plans are integral to the
building process. A model of a carnival, complete with Ferris-wheels and
rides, resulted in a collection of maps and drawings, just in case they
wanted to build it again.
As the children grew, model building replaced the more
playful aspects of LEGO. The children stopped using their models to play
games where characters live in a fantasy world and have adventures. But
even at the age of 16, Roger still indulged his younger brother in such
imaginative play. I was impressed by this social skill, one often lost
by kids this age group keen to get on with more “adult” past-times. More
than the others, Roger has used LEGO as a learning platform. He
surprised us all with a prize-winning LEGO mural of a female face a
month after seeing an exhibition where several decorative murals were
displayed. Far from being a construction toy, LEGO for Roger was a tool
to produce Art. In his teen years, he turned his attention to Technic
and programmable LEGO. His interest in electronics and computer
technology demonstrated the effectiveness of LEGO as a foundation for
the skills regularly used while fixing clients’ computers. Quietly,
behind the scenes and unobserved, Roger’s play with tiny plastic bricks
prepared him for a technical career.
With hindsight, it’s easy for me to see where LEGO
helped to develop my children’s skills and understandings in each of the
areas prescribed by the education system. They developed social skills
through learning cooperative behaviors, organizing their time,
developing decision making and problem solving skills, evolving
communication skills to suit need and situation, both in familial
situations and with friends. They exercised and developed information
skills: the ability to find information from many sources in effective
and efficient ways, learning to ask and pose questions, to choose
strategies for locating information and to use it in an organized way.
This gave them an incredible body of knowledge about
their favorite toy, but also spun out into other areas of learning,
enriching their lives immeasurably. LEGO construction developed planning
and design skills, as well as the ability to initiate and interpret
ideas, test solutions to problems encountered or imagined, and evaluate
the final construction. From the initial desire to build something to
the final breaking-up stage, the children actively used complex planning
and design skills, often mapped out their models on paper first, and
frequently recorded instructions in order to build them again. Their
acquired confidence, fine motor control and manual dexterity were
demonstrated in other areas, especially craft projects. And I can’t
begin to list the mathematical skills and concepts the children absorbed
through their play with LEGO.
Although I consciously selected toys I knew would have
some educational benefit, I was unaware of how play would teach my
children those things I believed could only be learned from contrived
activities or textbooks. More than any other toy, LEGO has shown me the
value of play.
Play isn’t something that we, as adults, can manipulate
and control. Our role, as I have found out, is to facilitate as many
opportunities for play as we can. Aside from quality tools, time to play
is crucial, and that's something home educating families can give their
children in abundance.
Beverley Paine began home educating her
children, now young adults, in 1986. She’s an active member of the
Australian home education movement. As an author she’s published several
homeschooling books and writes fiction for children and young adults.
Her other passions include permaculture, alternative technology, and web design. Visit her
websites. This article first appeared in Life Learning Magazine's November/December 2003
issue. Life Learning is one of Child's Play Magazine's sister
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