Boy playing with autumn leaves next to a wooden fence

The Importance of not Being Earnest: Why Play is Essential for Young Learners’ Brains

in Teaching

All of us were young learners once, and most will agree that it was an emotional experience. The joy when we first managed to ride a bike without falling off and hurting our knees. The proud first laps we swam without water wings…but also the frustration about the math exercise that just wouldn’t add up and all the other little things we just couldn’t seem to get right. But what actually happens in the young learner’s brain, and how does it learn best?

Sponge vs. elaborate tool

Contrary to popular conceptions, childrens’ brains are not sponges merely waiting to absorb knowledge. In fact, the newborn’s brain is equipped with nearly all the neurons (nerve cells passing on information) that it needs within a lifetime.

In our early years, the brain creates a network of connections and pathways between those neurons (aka synapses), enabling it to convey information to all the different areas. This helps us understand the world around us and interact with it in a meaningful way.

Surprisingly, once a large amount of connections has been built, the brain starts weeding out many of them again. It just keeps the ones that are actively being strengthened by practice and experience while dismissing the rest (see Meghan Fitz: “synapse formation” and “synapse pruning”).

One example for this is learning to ride a bicycle, as mentioned in the introduction. As children, we “fed” the neuronal pathways involved in the activity with physical experience (falling off, trying again) until the connections in the brain were strong enough for us to manage the task. Had we not constantly nurtured the synapses for riding a bike, they would have dissolved without us learning the skill.

Thus, brain function is more about practical application than memory storage (or rather, doing vs. taking in knowledge).

Healthy connections and the school system

As we see, the infant brain is not keen on information overload – rather, it wants to be able to connect the dots…quite literally! But how exactly does it do that?

Basically, there are three key factors which help young learners learn. These are:

  • Repetition
  • Sensory experience (movement and interaction)
  • Positive emotions related to the experience

In fact, science has shown that the different parts of the brain connect best through free play, because it combines all of the factors mentioned. Far from being a mere luxury, playing is an actual necessity for young learners’ mental, social and emotional development and wellbeing. In other words:

Play is our brain’s favorite way of learning.

Diane Ackerman

Sadly, what happens in many classrooms is the opposite: sitting still instead of moving around, receiving knowledge instead of exploration, and being “right” or “wrong” instead of a joyful, non-judgemental discovery of what works and what doesn’t.

Apart from causing frustration and disappointment, this also means that a large amount of brain connections are lost because they are not properly nourished at school.

So what’s a teacher to do?

With all of the above in mind, is there a way for teachers to tend to their young learners’ needs while still delivering what is expected from them?

Here are some ideas for little tweaks that can make a difference without causing mayhem in the classroom.

  1. Promoting task-based learning that gives students something practical to do. This can be combined with physical activity and games which include standing up, walking around and other physical elements.
  2. Asking questions gets students involved and builds on their existing knowledge, thus increasing confidence and interest.
  3. A positive error culture in which students feel valued, even if they don’t get it right all the time. Teachers can gently point out mistakes and let other students help. Group work also enhances young learners’ social skills and team spirit.

When you’re really serious about having a fun class

Depending on the teacher’s interests and personality, it is possible to create an engaging, learner-friendly environment completely off the beaten track, as this example shows:

Allen had never prepared a lesson in his life. Every class of his was improvised theatre. He regarded grammar books as part of the teacher’s room decoration, useful only to prevent a hot cup of coffee from marking the polished desk. His students loved him and seemed to make amazingly good progress.

ELTABBer Paul about his colleague Allen, one of his biggest influences

Allen’s approach was to provide as much practical experience as possible. He’d take his students to supermarkets, where he would place random items (e.g. oranges) in their hands, which he asked them to name. They got a lot out of his lessons, including some great stories to tell.

If you feel inspired to try some playful and educational activities with your students, you can find them at tinkergarten. You can filter your search by age group, length of activity and skill to be practised.

Finally, there is an inspiringly beautiful relation between a class of young learners and their teacher in the film “To have and to be” by Nicolas Philibert (see video trailer below).

Oh, and by the way: Adult learners love to have fun, too!

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