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Instructive Play as Learning

During the historical period of the Napoleonic wars, a young educator rose to prominence in Germany who was to have a profound impact on the future of education, even up to the present day. Friedrich Froebel was born in 1782 into the home of a pastor. His mother died when he was only nine months old, and he never enjoyed warm relations with his stepmother, a situation which seems to have had significant influence on his educational thought.

His educational ideas centered on the cultivation of awareness, love, and independence, and he once wrote, “The aim and object of parental care, in the domestic and family circle, is to awaken and develop, to quicken all the powers and natural gifts of the child, to enable all the members and organs of man to fulfill the requirements of the child’s powers and gifts. The natural mother does all of this instinctively, without instruction and direction; but this is not enough: it is needful that she should do it consciously” (The Education of Man, Augustus M. Kelley Publishers, Clifton, N.J.).

Along with one of his contemporaries, Johann Pestalozzi, Froebel developed a concept of education which promoted the validity of games and fun as a significant part of the educational process. In the book mentioned above Froebel wrote, “A child that plays thoroughly, with self-active determination, perseveringly until physical fatigue forbids, will surely be a thorough, determined man, capable of self-sacrifice for the promotion of the welfare of himself and others.”

Froebel’s view emerged from his focus on creativity and freedom in man. He was no Christian in the sense that we would use that term, but he certainly understood the nature of the universe as a gigantic object lesson developed by the creative hand of God, and he wanted to pattern his educational practices after that kind of example.

Many adults think that the early childhood departments of both public and Christian education have too much emphasis on play. In many cases such a criticism may be warranted. But there are two polar misunderstandings here which lead to a confusion of this teaching method. The first misunderstanding is a failure to recognize the significance of play activities in the educational process. The old puritanical idea that any kind of study is good as long as all of it is hard and some of it is unpleasant has been discounted long ago by competent educators. This is not to assert that discipline is not desirable in the educational process, but to state categorically that difficulty does not insure learning.

The other problem stems from a failure on the part of some teachers to make classroom play and games genuinely instructive. Almost all toys and play activities should be educational to some extent. They should be promoting the physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual maturation of the child. Eleanor Morrison and Virgil Foster wrote, “Play is the business of small children. Through play they find out about their world and how to relate to other persons. In play they express their feelings and ideas. In play they try on what it is like to be another person” (Creative Teaching in the Church, mentioned earlier).

No doubt a number of categories of instructive play could be developed, but let me suggest four to help us organize our thinking:

1. Educational Toys. In this category we would include blocks, books, clay, dolls, paste, paint, crayons, and other things which the children would use in creative play in an elementary classroom. Blocks, for example, could be used to build a church or a home after the children have heard a story about God’s house or about their parents and how children are loved and wanted. Sharing the blocks is as important an experience for Billy as thinking about the little church he is building. The preschool child is learning to be a part of a group larger than his own family.

2. Music. Although we will deal with music instruction in a different chapter, it deserves mention here because of the use of motion choruses, group singing, rhythm bands, and other dramatic expression which is definitely instructive play.

3. Finger plays. Children can act out verses and rhythms with their fingers, either in connection with music or in relation to some story.

4. Puzzles and Contests. Instructive play can leave the Nursery and Preschool rooms and move all the way up into the High School Department. Sword drills, Bible quizzes, crossword puzzles, and other forms of games are a deliberate attempt to teach biblical content through a fun approach to education,

One of the newest and most significant processes used today in the training of executives and administrators is called “Simulation Gaming.” Gaming approaches are used to change attitudes and develop personality. Such an objective is not far removed from what we are trying to do through instructive play in the Kindergarten room.

Values in Instructive Play

One of the most significant values of educational games in teaching small children is the opportunity which they afford the teacher to observe the child in a natural situation. When a child is caught up in a game, he tends to forget that an authority figure is present. As a result deficiencies of attitude and human behavior quickly emerge. Thus, the teacher or parent can see them and deal with them.

To quote Morrison and Foster again, “If the children are only talked to, or participate only in activities directed by a teacher, it is difficult for a teacher to know at what point each child is or is not growing in his ability to understand, trust, and love others. It is in the spontaneous interactions of children that a listening, sensitive teacher can find out what progress is being made by a child in living religiously with others.”

Another obvious value of this approach to the teaching-learning process is the enthusiastic involvement which it generally elicits from the student. No really effective teacher enjoys C4 making” a child learn. Teaching becomes a joy when children enter willingly and joyfully into the educational activities which we have planned for them. If those educational activities take the form of play, that positive reaction will be gained much more quickly.

Sometimes instructive play results from a carefully planned design set up by the teacher in advance. Other times the children will themselves gravitate toward the kind of play that represents recent environmental influences or interests. When my family and I were on a world trip in 1972, we cleared customs inspection in 17 countries. About half way through the trip we looked in on our children one day to find them busily playing customs inspector, with one rummaging through the suitcase of another. We had not taught them the game. Their own creative resources had produced it out of the fabric of their own experiences. Because of its inhibition-releasing form, instructive play does help develop creativity in our students.

Paul Torrance writes that “curiosity, the instinct of play, the instinct to manipulate, and the like have been suggested as natural guides to learning. Educational innovators such as Pestalozzi, Froebel, Binet, Montessori, and others made use of these forces, but recognized clearly that curiosity, playfulness, and manipulativeness unguided cannot be depended upon to bring about learning” (Encouraging Creativity in the Classroom, W. C. Brown and Co., Dubuque, Iowa).

Problems in Teaching Through Instructive Play

As suggested earlier, the inherent weakness in the system is that play will cease to be instructive. At all levels of education there is so much to be learned, and seemingly so little time to learn it, that the sincere teacher dare not allow time to be wasted. Particularly in Christian education, where what we have to communicate is so crucial because of its eternal nature, we want to be sure that every activity of the classroom, formal or informal, leads toward the accomplishment of worthy objectives.

Other less significant dangers could be mentioned. A playtime situation might get out of hand when directed by a teacher with minimal discipline skills. Proper equipment is needed, and a cost is involved in its purchase. In the final analysis, however, the virtues of instructive play will greatly overbalance the pitfalls if the teacher can keep his eye on the fulfillment of learning goals.

Principles for Effective Use of Instructive Play

The wise teacher will want to allow sufficient freedom and flexibility in the play process for children to find their own way in certain things. For example, in the modeling of clay, if the children are told to “make a cross,” they will either attempt to make it as much like the teacher’s model as possible or ask the teacher to make it for them so they will not have an inferior production. If, on the other hand, they are given a lump of clay and asked to make something that would help to remind them of Jesus our Saviour, a variety of symbols and ideas might result from the creative powers of the children’s minds.

With respect to the use of play that is genuinely instructive, the following list of evaluative questions will be helpful in looking back on the classroom experience in which we have used this method:

1. Was it enjoyable to all of the students?

2. Were new skills developed during the classroom period?

3. After the game, was group discussion well used?

4. Did the play seem to increase social cooperative behavior?

5. Were the children too dependent on their teacher during the playtime?

6. Did the game so excite the children that they could not settle down for the next aspect of the classtime?

7. Was the game genuinely purposeful, or was it just filler?

8. If we used this game before, did the children show genuine improvement this time?

If you have not used instructive play or educational games before, you might want to visit a Christian bookstore in your town and look at some of the materials available. You will find everything from toys for small nursery children to rather complex and difficult Bible games for advanced teens and adults. Everyone loves to play, and, if he can make play a learning experience, the creative teacher will be excited about the results.

Related Topics: Teaching the Bible