Inspired Teaching Q&A with Dr. David Whitebread

June 3, 2015

(Headshot courtesy of Dr. Whitebread)

david-whitebreadDr. David Whitebread is Senior Lecturer in Psychology & Education and Director of the Centre for Research on Play in Education, Development and Learning (PEDaL) at the University of Cambridge. His research interests are concerned with children’s cognitive development and implications for early years and primary education. His current research focus is on the early development of metacognition and self-regulation in young children and the role of play and language in supporting this development. Learn more about Dr. Whitebread and his work here.

Inspired Teaching recently spoke with Dr. Whitebread to ask him what “playful learning” is and why it is key to young people’s long term well being and success. Below is an excerpt from our conversation.

Let’s start with the very definition of play. In your research, when you talk about young people and “play,” what do you mean?

I have written whole chapters and papers about this. Play is a multifaceted thing, but we can talk about five types of play: there is physical play (which, as well as climbing, jumping, etc. includes what many people know colloquially as “rough and tumble” play); there is play with objects (which is exploring objects and making and constructing with different objects); there is symbolic play (which includes word play, singing, musical sounds, drawing, and such); there is pretend (which involves inventing narratives and stories and acting out roles in these stories); and there are games with rules (which is a wide spectrum ranging from peekaboo and hide-and-seek all the way to sophisticated board games and iPad games).

Across all types of play, children are learning fundamental cognitive skills, including what is called “mental representation” in developmental child psychology. This means that children are learning to think things through verbally. In their heads, they are learning to represent and express their ideas to others; they are learning to use what Vygotsky refers to as “intellectual tools.”

Through play, young people are also learning to learn. They are learning concentration, attention, an ability to gauge when things are not going right and how to re-adjust, and they are learning to keep track of where they are in the task. My research has focused on this area—that is, the ways in which play helps children learn to learn.

We know from longitudinal research studies that the two characteristics of four year olds that predict later academic success are their “learning to learn” skills and their mental representation abilities—and both of these are cultivated through play.

What do you make of the movement to push play out of the early childhood classroom in order to spend more time on more traditional academic instruction?

The pushback against playful learning is happening in many countries. Yet all the evidence shows that introducing formal, instructional pedagogies to younger and younger children is counterproductive.

There are a number of longitudinal research studies that show that children who’ve experienced more play-based classrooms in the first few years of their education, in the long term achieve more highly academically and also do better in life on a range of indicators.

What are the practical implications of this research? What does all this mean for the people who make decisions about public education—state education agencies, superintendents, school boards, chief academic officers, and such?

They need to support their teachers to learn how to teach their children (up to at least age seven) through playful means because then children will be more likely to learn how to learn, and they are more likely to develop strong and sound cognitive skills.

Let me share this example. There is evidence from a number of studies that parents who are playful with children with language enhance their children’s language development. Parents who adopt a more corrective and instructional approach hinder their children’s language development. Children who are constantly corrected lose confidence.

This same bad pattern is beginning to happen in schools. Children are consumed with worry about what is the right answer and what is the wrong answer, and they lose the ability to express themselves. If they lose confidence it is a downward spiral. The main predictor of learning is practice; it is simply how much you do. So, if a child feels confident about conversations she will become more articulate. If she loses confidence she doesn’t practice, and she spirals downward. What you need to do as a parent or as an educator is to encourage children to “have a go” at the things you want them to learn. The more confident they are at having a go at it, the better they will get at that skill.

How do educators create opportunities for playful learning in the classroom?

Teaching through playful means is not a simple matter. To create high-quality playful learning you have to understand what exactly children are learning through play. Once you understand, you can then know what resources you can introduce to support playful learning—resources that are flexible and adaptable. You can then also build challenges and problems into playful learning.

What is also critical is that the adult helps structure the play, but does not take over the play. What does this look like? Well, I have a lovely video of a teacher and students at a play corner set up as a hairdressers. The children are acting as hairdressers, and the teacher pretends to ring the door bell. “Hello, I’ve come for my appointment.” And one of the children says, “Who do you have cut your hair?” and then they have a discussion about what to put on her hair, how she would like it cut, when to book her next appointment, who has the appointment book, and such. At one point the teacher says “Oh, I think the telephone is ringing. I expect that is someone who wants an appointment.” And by the time the teacher leaves, there are about seven or eight children now at the play corner because it is so interesting, and the teacher is sensitive to the children’s interests. She sets up small challenges with the store through her questions and participation, but she doesn’t take over the play scenario.

And that’s the key thing. Sometimes adults come into children’s pretend scenarios and dominate and within a minute, it’s the adult left hugging the teddy bear, and the children have all gone. A skillful adult finds out what the children are interested in and feeds that into the play scenario.

How can we assess the impact of play on student academic learning?

I think that watching children while they are playing is one of the best forms of assessment. Children who are playing are typically operating at a higher level than when they are being instructed.

Children are naturally keen to stretch themselves. They want to build the block tower higher, make their car zoom faster. Often we make the mistake of underestimating them when we test them. Formal testing is a very blunt instrument. Many children fail to show the true range of their abilities in a formal testing situation.

And then there is seeing what children understand by watching them play, where they often can show more of what they know. Let me share this example. There is a very old experiment done where an adult shows a group of children who are three, four, five years old a list of food items to remember. They didn’t do terribly well. But then, she made it into a game. They were having a tea party for teddies, and she told them the same list of food items and told them to go get those items from the shopkeeper at the pretend shop. With that context, the children remembered many more items.

So with young children, you have to assess them through a meaningful activity. Often, formal testing is not meaningful for them—they don’t understand what they are being required to do and why. But if you set this up as a game or as a play scenario, children are more likely to show you what they are capable of.

Also, the formal testing is testing what is easiest to test. What the formal testing is not testing are the things that are likely to predict future success. A child’s mastery of phonics and spelling don’t predict much. However, if a child is showing strong learning to learn skills in their early years, then they are more likely to be successful, confident learners later on.

What would you say to teachers who want to bring playful learning into their classrooms but are not sure where to start?

Start small. Introduce a playful activity and see how children respond and build from there. It could be how can I make this math lesson into a game? How do I encourage the children to play with language and sounds? What materials can children play with to help them develop their ideas for writing stories? That kind of thing.

When teachers try this out, they recognize that this is really, really valuable. They see the enthusiastic responses of children, and how much effort children will put in an activity when it is play-based.

Want to learn more about playful learning? Explore this list of additional resources provided by Dr. Whitebread.

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