• Elise Wiley

We Misunderstood the Assignment: Work vs Play

We misunderstood the assignment. It was never supposed to be work vs play, it was always supposed to be work AND play, together, as the same thing. The famed Mr. Rogers said “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning.”

But young children aren’t the only ones. We developed, as a species, learning through play and exploration. Once language developed we were able to pass along what our experiences taught us through stories. Which is why stories are often considered the oldest form of education.


Institutional learning, and labor driven work, didn’t come about until we started settling down and working the land through agriculture. Our hunter gatherer ancestors needed to have more varied and specialized knowledge. For them, life was work, play, and survival all rolled into one. Modern day schools were built from the desire to create a work force, and provide child care. They were born out of the needs of society, not from a model of how we best learn.


We learn by doing and experimenting in safe environments. Think about everything you’ve learned, in your whole life, starting with your first words, and your first steps all the way up to what you know now. Did you learn it in a traditional classroom? Or did you learn those skills from days, months, even years of trial and error, practice, and through examining the mistakes of others? Through everyday life?


This is why things like stories, that provide context to curriculum, are such powerful tools in our efforts to learn new things. Hearing or reading about someone else’s experiences is the next best thing to doing them ourselves, and helps us develop a desire to integrate our new found knowledge into our own story (our daily lives).

Our ability to learn through play, trial and error, and repeated practice is also seen in the benefits of role-play. Role-play is a non threatening, and safe way to practice what we have learned. To make mistakes, to see the outcome of our actions, and experience trial and error without consequence.


Our young children learn so much through role-play, of course, for them things like dressing up, setting up fake stores, and doctor’s offices are often just called “play.” But, that play is motivating, informative, and pivotal for their growing brains.


We still use role-play, and practice as key ways of learning new skills as adults. So, when did we decide that separate desks in a classroom was the way to go?

The truth is, we messed up. We should all be playing dress up, reading stories, and spending our days trying, failing, and growing through repeated experience and practice. We’d be more motivated, better adjusted, more entertained, and more engaged in our own learning. The good news? It’s never too late to fix this mistake. And there's no better time to embrace your inner child and to play dress up all over again than Halloween.


So here’s to understanding the assignment going forward and a fantastic Halloween!


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