Tag Archive for imagination

What Legos & Ducks Teach Us About Our Children’s Drive to Learn

It may sound like it was a day in preschool, but it was a group of 22 adults recruited for a study. Each recruit was given five small plastic bags containing six Legos in each one. Four of the Legos were yellow (one of which had an eye on either side) and two were red. In part one of this study, researchers asked the participants to build ducks in ways that “felt playful.” In the second part of the study, they asked the participants to build ducks in a way that “did not feel playful.” Finally, the researchers helped the participant process and describe the two approaches to building ducks using the bags of Legos.

When asked to be playful, the participants reported consciously accessing their autonomy so they could intentionally do what they wanted and build a “creative duck.” Those asked to build a duck in a “non-playful” way reported tapping into their mechanical mode to build the prototype duck.

Playfully building the ducks also led the participants to approach the Legos more thoughtfully, “sensing the bricks” before building and thus allowing ideas and possibilities to arise and flow more freely. In a manner of speaking, they playfully sensed the Legos and followed the Legos into a playful version of a duck. And, in fact, they surprised themselves with novel-looking ducks, not simply ordinary ducks. And participant asked to build a duck in a “playful way” enjoyed building their ducks. Moreover, their unique designs motivated them to want to do it again.

Approaching the duck construction in a non-playful way, on the other hand, did not result in surprisingly novel-looking ducks but in the mechanical construction of expected ducks. It also did not result in an enjoyable or motivating experience.

This study suggests an important factor in helping our children develop a love for learning, a drive to learn. The factor? Play! The playful approach in the study noted above provided three ingredients that culminated in the motivation to learn more.

  1. Autonomy. When building the ducks in a playful manner, the participants had to choose how they wanted to create their duck. They were implicitly given choices. We can encourage our children to learn by giving them choices. Play provides a myriad of choices for our children, beginning with the choice of what they want to play. When given a variety of items, they can choose how to assemble those items or even what they might represent. A box can become a car in one game and a television in another. Autonomy is further bolstered as children negotiate with one another to reach a compromise on how to play the game. In this whole process, our children learn. They learn about one another and about effective social interactions. They learn about the properties of the objects they are playing with. They learn about creative story telling. They learn physics and the limits of their physical abilities. They learn autonomy.
  2. Absorption with the materials with which they are engaged. Children get lost in the play as their stick becomes a magic wand or a royal staff or the building block for a secret fort. Who knows what the play materials will become? Barbie may fly and birds may swim. It’s their choice. (Remember autonomy?) So let the play begin with interesting and engaging materials. Such materials are often simple. In fact, the best toys for children are those they can act upon and use to create whatever action they desire rather than toys with predetermined rules of play. After all, imaginative play can make our children a head taller than themselves.
  3. Surprise often occurs when given the freedom to manipulate the materials of play and create something of their choosing. Surprisingly, the tree gives advice rooted in wisdom, the negotiation turns toward compromise and an ingenious resolution, or a blanket magically provides safety from the monster only when used to help another. Yes, children’s play will be full of surprises and insights.

Overall, this process of play creates a cycle of creative exploration and learning that leads to the “personal reward of surprising discoveries.” This, in turn, will encourage and motivate our children to continue learning. It will create a drive to play and learn. Let’s not squelch the drive. Let’s just play.

Your Child’s Toolbox for Play

Maria Montessori once said, “Play is the child’s work.” All work requires tools, not just any tools but the right tools. It does no good to cut a 2X4 with a hammer or a screwdriver to pound in a nail. No, we need the right tools for the right job. Play is a child’s job. In play, children work to build independent skills. They work to gain confidence and become better problem-solvers. Children gain an understanding of their world and how to navigate that world through play.  “Play is the child’s work;” their maturity and wisdom depend on them doing this work with the right tools. What are the right tools for the work of play? Good question.

  1. Toys, of course…but not just any toys. The best toys to get a child’s job done right are those that encourage imagination, investigation, interaction, problem-solving, exploration, or invention. Magda Gerber notes that the best tools, the best toys, for a child’s play, “don’t do anything.” Children must actively engage in and interact with the toy and those enjoying the toy with him to have fun, which brings us to tool #2…
  2. Imagination. Sometimes having too many toys get in the way of getting the job done. Encourage your children to play imaginative games in which they pretend to be various characters and act out various roles. Give them play clothes and costumes, action figures and dolls, props and room to pretend. Like Einstein said, “The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.” Encourage imagination. (Read Make Your Child “a Head Taller Than Himself” for more.)
  3. Boredom. Boredom is a fundamental tool for learning to entertain the self. Boredom encourages your child to better use the tool of imagination. Boredom sparks creativity. It promotes resourcefulness. Boredom teaches children to entertain themselves. I’m not promoting constant boredom, but some boredom is a great tool in the toolbox of your child’s play. (Read 3 Responses to the Summer Mantra “I’m Bored” for more.)
  4. Friends. Children also need time to play with friends. They learn so many skills while engaged in play with friends, skills like communication, compromise, negotiation, and problem-solving to name a few. Set up play dates. When problems arise, step back and let them solve the problem on their own. Step in only when if they absolutely need your assistance. (Become Your Child’s Friendship Coach will offer more suggestions.)
  5. Outdoors. A recent study suggests outdoor play increases executive functioning skills and decreases inattentive-hyperactivity symptoms. Unstructured play in a natural/outdoor setting is also linked with improved mental health and better emotional regulation (Year round outdoor play can boost kids’ performance in school describes more). So, encourage your children to get off the video games and play outdoors as often as possible.

Make sure these 5 tools remain in your child’s toolbox for play so they can do the work of play in the most effective and productive manner possible. You’ll enjoy watching them build a mature, independent, and kind adult through the children’s work of play.