The Role of Play in Education: Guest Commentary by Ed Goulart

I am thrilled that my colleague and friend, Ed Goulart, has agreed to contribute to the Primary Innovation Studio Blog. Ed encapsulates the kind of coach/facilitator and teacher that students need today. He incorporates a healthy blend of joy, creativity, and expertise into his classroom. Ed is one of those colleagues who supports and challenges me throughout the school year. Tony Wagner asserted the importance of play in his recent book, Play, Passion and Purpose, and it dawns on me that educators need permission to use the word PLAY with purpose and confidence. Thanks again, Ed!

Screen Shot 2014-08-05 at 9.46.29 AM

“Do not keep children to their studies by compulsion but by play.” Plato

Recently, I have found myself thinking quite a bit about the role and the experience of play in the lives of the children I teach. It started with an idea for a song I wrote. As often happens, once I’d started thinking about the importance of play, I began to run across articles and other writings about it. Of course, the topic came up again and again in conversations with different colleagues. Mary Lisa was one of those colleagues, and she asked if I’d write this blog entry. So, I Googled the words “play” and “learning”, looking for quotes and thoughts that might motivate and inspire me. The following are my thoughts.

Watch a child at play. What do you observe? Total concentration. Absolute engagement. Imagination, perseverance and resilience. Roles arise from deep within the imagination. Perhaps the child is replaying a favorite book or movie. Or maybe he is pretending to be an animal. Or an alien. Problems and challenges arise, are confronted and resolved, only to be replaced with new challenges. Often, the role a child chooses to play is that of a real-world person: a mom, dad, teacher or police officer. The child, through play, is exploring the options and constructing the person he will someday become. Despite the importance of play to the future man, however, play is crucial and vital to the person that the child is today.

“In play, a child always behaves beyond his average age, above his daily behavior. In play, it is as though he were a head taller than himself.”  Lev Vygotsky

The desire, even need, to play is hard wired into children. It is critical to their development as human beings. And it should never be diminished. Time to play is every bit as critical to a child as any endeavor that might be identified in adults. Through play, children discover reality. They begin as individuals, alone in their own little worlds. Soon, however, other children begin to be incorporated as characters into their stories. Through this play, a child constructs an awareness of the world as a social arena, and he begins to explore and create his own role within that world. Rules, which began as mandates from above, become social conventions to be negotiated and agreed upon. Play provides the opportunist to experiment with different behaviors in a safe environment in which consequences are reduced to being tattled upon.

“Almost all creativity involves purposeful play.” Abraham Maslow

Children engaged in active play with each other are learning to communicate with each other. They talk through and act out the rules or parameters of their play. They must, of needs, collaborate with each other in order to maintain the game. As problems arise, they work together to produce potential solutions. Here is the essence of creativity as a means of solving problems. This process also requires critical thinking as the child analyzes the problem, makes connections to similar situations he has experienced and the solutions that worked, and then evaluates the likely success of those potential solutions in this new situation. I’m exhausted just thinking about all of that thinking. The child, however, is happy in his play.

Play is not a reward. Neither is it the opposite of work. It is not something separate from learning. In fact, play is an inextricable part of the learning process for children. How often do we see children take things they are learning and transfer/translate them into a game. “Hey, let’s pretend we’re horses today.” Soon, you see a group of children acting out what they know about horses. Or another group may be using Legos to replicate and extend their thinking; to stretch what they know and how they know it. The point is that play becomes a means of contextualizing and synthesizing learning in a personally meaningful way. It also becomes the place in which children learn to ask what is, perhaps, the most important of all questions: What if? What if our horses could fly? How would that change our game? This question is foundational to innovative thinking and creative problem solving. No less a thinker than Albert Einstein would seem to agree through his quote: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

Of course sometimes, play is just play. But even there it serves a valuable role. New ideas and understandings often spring up when we are not focused on anything in particular. I should also note here that not all learning should, or even can be, play. Although it is funny how  often a child will refer to an activity as play when performing a task that I would consider to be work.

“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” Mr. Rogers


Screen Shot 2014-08-05 at 9.49.17 AM

Ed Goulart is a first grade teacher at Mammoth Heights Elementary in Parker, CO. He has been teaching primary aged children for over 20 years. Ed holds an M.Ed. from Lesley University and an Elementary I credential from the American Montessori Foundation. Ed has experience teaching in both public Montessori as well as traditional public schools, and has helped to open 4 different schools in his career.


1 thought on “The Role of Play in Education: Guest Commentary by Ed Goulart

  1. My mom always said that play was the most important thing for kids to do . She told us it was our “work.” Sure do love Mr G! 😉

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s