Why do we stop children being playful learners and then worry about how we can make them creative?


This post originally appeared on www.thirstforthinking.org

Mitch Resnick in his article Lifelong Kindergarten concludes with the thought :“Instead of making kindergarten more like the rest of school, we need to make the rest of school – indeed, the rest of life – more like kindergarten.”This reflects the points I raised in my previous blog post about developing a playful mindset in students, (“Do we have the confidence to let students be playful learners?”) that the conditions that are naturally found in play are exactly the ones we are all trying so hard to create in the learning environments of our classrooms.

Why then is it that schools seem to try so hard to suppress students’ natural desire for play only to relabel those desires as creativity a few years latter and fret about students not being able to do them?

In a recent report quoted in Forbes Magazine the US based National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) listed the top 10 skills they were searching for in new graduates:

1. Ability to work in a team structure
2. Ability to make decisions and solve problems
3. Ability to communicate verbally with people inside and outside an organization
4. Ability to plan, organize and prioritize work
Ability to obtain and process information
6. Ability to analyze quantitative data
7. Technical knowledge related to the job
8. Proficiency with computer software programs
9. Ability to create and/or edit written reports
10. Ability to sell and influence others

I have highlighted in red the ones that jump out to me as being the skills that would (although worded slightly differently) be likely to be in the list an average 6 year old would make as key skills for playing with friends.

Don’t get me wrong point 6,7 and 9 are highly important skills that schools need to foster. All students should have high levels of numeracy and literacy and technical knowledge. However I would argue that too often, instead of using children’s natural creativity and playfulness to leverage the effective learning in these area, we focus 6, 7 and 9 at the expense of all of the others. Rather we should be developing a symbiotic relationship between creativity and high levels of technical proficiency and ‘academic’ knowledge to create highly flexible and capable learners who love  learning.

Compared to this if you look into most play based Kindergarten classrooms such as those of my colleague Alison Camire you will certainly see all of the skills in red, and arguably some of the other three as well, enacted on a daily basis. You will see students creating and sharing their creation together in flexible group situations.

In the excellent Lego Foundations  Cultures of Creativity Report by David Gauntlett & Bo Stjerne Thomsen, the authors state “The creative mindset is an attitude to the world characterised by curiosity, questions, and a desire to play, make and share, which children possess in their early years, but which is often tragically lost in the culture of schools and workplaces.”

How is education failing to foster a culture of creativity?

Whilst there are amazing things going on every day in many inspirational classrooms, traditionally we notice a number of things occurring as students get older which go against the development of a culture of creativity:

1) The learning environment (what Loris Malaguzzi so aptly described as ‘The Third Teacher’) becomes less rich. Ewan McIntosh speaks about 7 types of learning spaces. It would be a useful check for teachers to critically look at the learning spaces they’ve created and ask how many of these spaces of learning do they enable?

2) The level of autonomy learners have over their own learning is increasingly reduced. As the work of Edward.L. Deci and others have shown, the feeling of self determination and autonomy have a large impact on students’ intrinsic motivation. Whilst pressures of covering content for high stake exams mean that some autonomy might to be reduced as learners get older this does not mean that autonomy can not be given over factors such as who the learners work with, where they position themselves in the learning environment, exactly how they display their understandings etc.

3) The opportunities for learners to play with ideas and create meaningful products as they construct meaning is reduced. Gradually this time to play with ideas and objects is replaced by being told the correct response and being required to repeat it. The work of Design Thinking argues very convincingly the need to provide time for the discovery, interpretation,ideation, experimentation and evolution of ideas. It also makes clear that this is not a solo project ideas and objects need to be co created and this brings me on to point 4.

4) Speaking of Elizabeth Cohen’s ideas of “Complex Instruction’ Jo Boaler makes the point in maths that group work should exploit the multidimensional quality of classrooms; that groups should be set up so that every member has a valued and meaningful role to play. Again as learners get older too often we see both a decline in group work and a decline in the types of equality of group work you often see in free play where children will pool their talents to achieve a meaningful goal for them.

5) I have spoken in my previous blogs about the importance of creation in the learning process. This is fully evident in the early years of education with classrooms full of artefacts and products made by the children and in which they take pride. As learners become older however this creation of a product which is meaningful to the learner, be that a physical product or an intellectual one increasingly gets relegated to being the preserve of the creative arts. Why should this be the case? Why are all learners not empowered to create with what they are learning?

6) Two weeks ago at my school was one of the highlights of the year the Student Led Conferences. Students in both the Elementary and Middle Schools spent over an hour sharing their learning with parents and in some cases siblings and grandparents. It was an incredibly positive experience for all involved. Ideas and emotions are exchanged when we share products that are meaningful to us with peers, family, teachers, in short communities are built and cultures developed. Web 2.0 has vastly broadened the ways in which people can share their ideas and creations to the wider world using a wide range of literacies. Yet we see eduction often reduced to learners producing a product in which they see no value which is shared in a private interchange between them and the teacher, who often dreads the prospect of having to see it.

Reflection Points as we move forward

How then are educators overcoming the obstacles noted above?

As educators reflect upon the culture of creativity they are developing within their own learning environment, these questions may help them to scaffold their thinking:

1) How has the environment I’ve created inspired learning?

2) Have learners been able to exercise a degree of autonomy over their own learning?

3) Have learners had a chance to play with ideas and objects prior to creating?

4) Have my learners been able to take on a range of different group roles whilst co creating meaning?

5) Have my learners created something of meaning to them?

6) Have learners being able to share what they have created with people important to them?

I really look forward to people letting me know how a culture of creativity is being created in their learning environment.

About derekpinchbeck

I am currently the Elementary Principal ISS International School Singapore. My website is www.thirstforthinking.org and twitter @DerekPinchbeck
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4 Responses to Why do we stop children being playful learners and then worry about how we can make them creative?

  1. A lot to think about here Derek. Great post.

    I think we teeter totter between extreme poles at times. There is the “academic skills” side, reading levels, numeracy skills, knowledge, etc. The black points from above.

    Then there are the red points, the creative, playful side, collaborating with others, imagining, wondering about new possibilities.

    Here is the thing though; we need both. Musicians don’t stop practicing their scales once they get very talented. Writers don’t stop reading other books or working on syntax and grammar. Athletes don’t stop training in their basic skills. They practice these things. The “academic” side is in coordination with the “creative”. They feed off each other.

    I don’t like the word balance, it makes it seem like the two are equally weighted. Saying it is “Dynamic” is better, as we shift over both landscapes and blur the line between them.

    This is something I want to spend a lot more time wondering about. How to blur that line? How to develop academic skills and creative playfulness? It is so powerful for a child to play and imagine their own worlds. It is so much MORE powerful when they have the literacy skills to capture that play in writing, drawing, visual representation. One thing is clear to me; we can’t just expect them to do it. We need to support and guide them to that higher level of “play”.


  2. I’m glad you enjoyed the post and thank you for commenting. As I say in the post what we seek is to “be developing a symbiotic relationship between creativity and high levels of technical proficiency and ‘academic’ knowledge to create highly flexible and capable learners who love learning.”
    This is as you say where the skill of the professional comes in. How do we ensure that the relationship is truly symbiotic with the ‘academic’ empowering the creativity and the creative mindset taking the learner ever deeper into the complexities of the ‘academic’?
    As Matthew Crawford in The Case for Working with your Hands (published in the US as Shop Class as Soulcraft) makes the point that Einstein was not a creative physicist in isolation from being a highly knowledgeable one. “Creativity” Crawford argues “is the by product of mastery of the sort that is cultivated through long practice.” (p51).
    I have written about these issues in my blog. i hope you find it an enjoyable read:


  3. Pingback: Why do we stop children being playful learners and… | EducatorAl's Tweets

  4. Pingback: Curating for inquiry learning…reflections on a learning space. | Justwondering

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