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Language is play; learning is play

Sara Englis, Spanish Teacher

One of the main reasons that I’m passionate about teaching Spanish is because learning a language has the potential to open students’ minds and hearts to different cultures – music, food, art, history, literature – and to befriend people from that culture. Learning the societal norms of a culture is part of the language acquisition process.  I’ve noticed that depending upon what language I am speaking my persona changes or adapts to that language’s intonation, gestures, and unique expressions or etiquette standards. For example, when I speak Japanese I speak in a much higher pitched voice and am more reserved than when I speak in Spanish.

Oftentimes parents ask me what they can do to help improve their child’s Spanish, but the truth of the matter is impeccable grammar and studying words in isolation doesn’t translate into fluency. Above all else, having a good sense of humor and being comfortable with making mistakes, sometimes embarrassing ones, are helpful. Learning a language is a little like free play. You learn from everyone with whom you’re playing while having fun.

With summer around the corner, I’ve been thinking about the importance of free play. For me, summer has always been an invitation to play with friends, to invent your own games, even out of boredom… or just to lay on the grass and look at the clouds and imagine.  With so many different forms of entertainment and structured activities for children these days, free play has a lot of competition.  It’s no wonder that one might forget the healthy benefits of free play.  Here’s a link to some research on “The Cognitive Benefits of play: Effects on the learning brain.”

The main thrust of the research is summarized nicely here:

Playful experiences are learning experiences

Finally, lest anybody doubt that kids learn through play, we should keep in mind the following points.

1. Most play involves exploration, and exploration is, by definition, an act of investigation.

It's easy to see how this applies to a budding scientist who is playing with magnets, but it also applies to far less intellectual pursuits, like the rough-and-tumble play in puppies. The animals are testing social bonds and learning how to control their impulses, so that friendly wrestling doesn't turn into anti-social aggression. Play is learning.

2. Play is self-motivated and fun.

Thus, anything learned during play is knowledge gained without the perception of hard work. This is in contrast with activities that we perform as duties. When learning is perceived to be arduous, our ability to stay focused may feel like a limited resource that is drained over time (Inzlicht et al 2014). And it's hard to achieve a state of flow, the psychological experience of being totally, and happily, immersed in what you are doing. Play is an obvious gateway to the state of flow.

3. These arguments aside, there is also empirical evidence that kids treat play as a tutorial for coping with real life challenges.

All around the world, children engage in pretend play that simulates the sorts of activities they will need to master as adults (Lancy 2008), suggesting such play is a form of practice. And when kids are fed information during pretend play--from more knowledgeable peers or adults--they take it in. Experiments on American preschoolers suggest that children as young as 3 understand make distinctions between realistic and fanciful pretending, and use information learned from realistic pretend scenarios to understand the real world (Sutherland and Friedman 2012; 2013).

The takeaway? Giving children play-breaks and making children's academic lessons more playful isn't mere sugar-coating. It might be a way to enhance kids' natural capacities for intense, self-motivated learning.

An interesting book on the same subject is Einstein Never Used Flashcards: How Our Children Really Learn—and Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less by developmental psychologists Kathy Hirsch-Pasek, Roberta Michnick Golinkoff and Diane Ever. It might make for some fun summer reading for moms and dads.

I wish you all a wonderful, playful summer.

Sara Englis joined the PBS team as Spanish Teacher in 2016 after 9 years teaching 5th–9th-graders at Rippowam Cisqua School in New York. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Skidmore College and an M.B.A. from Columbia University; her career has included time abroad teaching high-schoolers in Bogotá, Colombia, and English teachers in Kyushu, Japan. When not in the classroom, Señora Englis enjoys skiing and playing the piano.

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