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Necessity Play is the Mother of Invention

I stumbled across our Monsters, Inc DVD last night and one of the key themes replayed in my mind…the realization at the end of the movie that joy/laughter creates significantly more power than fear.

I think we need to revisit this theme with respect to learning and school. So many of our policy decisions right now are based on fear of falling behind and trying to teach kids the “right” ways to do things as quickly as possible, eliminating true discovery and joyful novelty from school day learning. But we’re not just eliminating opportunities for inventive, creative self-expression during the school day by slashing recess, arts and extracurricular budgets. As parents, we’re replacing “go play outside/have a dance party/fiddle around on the piano” with soccer practice/music lessons/tutoring.

Which brings to mind this study, which found that instruction actually limits spontaneous exploration and discovery. Kids who were shown how to use a novel toy played with it for significantly less time AND found fewer different kinds of actions on the toy than kids who were just given the toy with no further instruction.

This revelation, in addition to recent self-regulation studies that have shown that kids’ executive function—or the ability to control their own emotions and behavior—has diminished since the 1940s, should set off alarm bells in our minds. Why? Because the more structured the play, the more children’s private speech declines. This means that kids aren’t getting a chance to practice the all-important skill of self-regulation/executive function. And executive function is used by adults to surmount the obstacles that we encounter countless times as we work to innovate and invent as adults. (Among a host of other incredibly important skills.) More on these studies can be found here.

If we’re going to help the next generation of kids continue to invent and innovate–not just regurgitate–we need to make sure that as parents and educators we allow opportunities for our kids to experience both structured AND unstructured learning.

Let’s change our collective mantras and our own self-talk from a fearful “what haven’t they learned yet?” to a joyful “what will they think of next?”

#letkidsplay #powerofplay #bringbackrecess

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About Jen Lilienstein - Founder,

Helping parents and teachers develop more intrinsically motivated learners by celebrating and embracing kids' unique multiple intelligence strengths, personality types and predominant cognitive styles.


4 thoughts on “Necessity Play is the Mother of Invention

  1. Great points and research to share – thank you.

    Step-by-step instructions (as opposed to inquiry) and itemized testing (as opposed to, say, more holistic measures like portfolios or performances) are a primary example of our schools’ impulse to “murder to dissect” learning.

    Do you know of any work about how kids benefit (or not) from hearing other kids private talk during play? What kind of cross-inspiration goes on there?

    All the best,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | March 24, 2012, 8:58 am
    • Hi there, Chad! Thanks for the response. I can’t think of any specific studies offhand about how kids benefit from hearing other kids’ private talk during play, but I would assume there’s a significant impact there.

      I wholeheartedly believe in the power of learning from peers and I think that many times kids learn to self-regulate most effectively from trying out approaches with peers and getting repeated positive/negative emotional responses. I think how the other kids react is much more impactful than an adult telling them “not OK” without the benefit of a direct emotional response from a peer.

      I know that I’ve anecdotally seen this happen repeatedly, but haven’t ever thought to attempt to quantify it… It would certainly make for an interesting study!

      What are your thoughts?
      Jen 🙂

      Posted by kidzmet | March 25, 2012, 4:38 pm
      • I think about my students playing something like Minecraft side-by-side and looking over one another’s shoulders at the structures they’re building and the tutorials they’re reading and viewing. Kids imagining and playing amidst kids seems like a powerful self-“directed” learning strategy to me.

        All the best,

        Posted by Chad Sansing | March 26, 2012, 8:24 am


  1. Pingback: Necessity… the mother of invention « Butterflies and Bunny Rabbits - May 14, 2012

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