Work and Play: Equal Partners in Learning

Work and Play: Equal Partners in Learning
Serena Wilkie Gifford, Head of School

Recess in Tower’s Backyard is a lively time of day. The turf field is the ideal place for playing chase and for perfecting one’s cartwheels, all while dodging the bigger kids’ games of soccer and football or watching the first graders noisily build cars out of waffle blocks. Across the field, the swings creak as legs pump higher, and the play structures are chockablock with children climbing, sliding and jumping. Amidst it all are those who prefer to stroll as they chatter, content to be part of the whirlwind of movement around them. 

At first glance, this time could be considered unconstructive or frivolous. However, we know that play is essential for students, and we value the research of eminent developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who found that “during play, children set their own challenges and determine their own attention and plans.” In other words, through play, students cultivate critical executive function capacities such as decision-making, impulse control, shifting attention, organization and flexibility. Play also provides organic means for children to develop skills that span social-emotional and academic realms. As a result, we prioritize play as a powerful and meaningful endeavor, full of opportunities for self-directed, creative and collaborative engagement––not merely a reward when the day’s work is done.

As teachers will attest, just as there is real work being done during recess, so too, are there opportunities for play in every academic setting. Tower students have traditional and playful opportunities throughout the day during which they make their own choices, set goals, and articulate the process by which they will reach their goals. Such learning leads to self-motivation, investment, delight, and goal-directed persistence. Skills that our youngest students practice daily like following directions and being a good friend bear a direct correlation to their strengths in Middle School when they are expected to manage multiple assignments, identify with the perspective of a person in history or a novel, and work productively with others. Wise teachers know how to recognize and facilitate explicit moments in play where authentic skill-building and learning can occur, just as they know how to craft productive lessons in naturally playful and inspiring ways.

Acknowledging the value of “play” as much as we do “work” during the school day allows the two to exist as equal partners. Inherent in academic activities are characteristics of play, and these elements are often the very things that engage children (and adults too!). Over time, a playful approach to learning sustains students’ interest and motivation as they work hard to practice, master, and apply academic skills. By incorporating fundamental elements of play into academic tasks, we see children approach these activities with joyful anticipation and innate curiosity, again and again. They naturally develop ownership of what they are doing, finding meaning and pride in work because it is resonant and relevant. Learning is successful when children work with a playful mindset and play with a purpose; in this way, play and work go hand in hand.