The Pursuit of Play within the Curriculum

By Ortlieb, Evan T. | Journal of Instructional Psychology, September 2010 | Go to article overview

The Pursuit of Play within the Curriculum


Ortlieb, Evan T., Journal of Instructional Psychology


Play has been traditionally recognized as an activity within early childhood education, but in actuality, it has substantial importance to learners at all levels. Since the idea of play is abstract and has no pre-determined outcomes, some teachers feel uneasy about allowing students to play with concepts and materials, especially with the advent of increased accountability and scripted curriculums. However, discovery learning is one of the single greatest ways in which students develop critical thinking skills to solve academic problems in every subject area. After conducting a thorough literature review, the investigator concluded that play is an ideal avenue in which creativity is sparked through open-ended explorations that are largely student driven. Specifics regarding what to do and what to avoid are discussed so as to provide guidance for infusing play into the curriculum.

Conceptual Framework

Without question, human beings have urges and tendencies to play at various times. Children explore their environments, adolescents engage in athletic competitions, and adults travel on vacations in hopes of experiencing the "new." Within social settings, like school, play can foster cooperative learning skills, adaptive abilities, and much more, allowing students to better handle situations throughout their lives.

Although play is commonly referred to within social contexts, the meaning of play is obscure. According to Huizinga (1930), "Play is a function of living but it is not susceptible of exact definition either logically, biologically, or aesthetically ... the play-concept remains distinct from all other forms of thought in which we express the structure of mental and social life" (p. 6). Although it is illogical to attempt to define such a vast concept, providing a clear conceptual framework for discussing play is obligatory, while hopefully satisfying those reductionist thinkers as well. Play is a minimally-scripted, open-ended exploration in which the participant is absorbed in the spontaneity of the experience. Since there is such plasticity and no predetermined outcome of such an experience, educators are often frightened at the prospect of using play within their instruction. Elementary school teachers can be regularly heard saying "one has to meet standards, have goals, and get her students ready to pass the standardized tests." Although the thoughts of students playing in class could seem daunting, the benefits are overwhelming. Through play, students gain critical thinking skills from solving problems, become more creative, and ultimately learn from reflecting on their experiences.

The concept of play is very intriguing because it is unique in that humans can live in a carefully crafted environment of play without ever thinking about anything else. For example, when a child is playing a game of football at recess, the game engulfs his mind to the point that every thought is game-oriented. Every impulse, reflex, and movement is an attempt to succeed in the game to the best of his ability. This concept is truly powerful, but more importantly, can be captured in a classroom setting just like at recess or at home. Would not students learn to a higher extent if play were used to teach subject content? Of course, if students could engage in play to learn, they would give every effort to succeed and exceed the highest expectations.

History and Beyond

In the time of colonial America (1690), American students were taught using moral virtues as the foci of instruction. Many of whom had to memorize such admonitions as "Work while you work, play while you play. One thing each time, that is the way." This separation of work and play was seemingly brought about with the intentions of eliminating the latter within "work" settings like educational and career-oriented applications. This substitution was deemed necessary because play was viewed as being fun. "Fun--representing the 'purposeless'--can only be had at specific times and occasions and it is clearly and severely prohibited from all other activities and environments" (Bruner, 1996).

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