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Why Students Learn Better in a Playful Environment

Learning, creativity, and problem solving are facilitated by anything that promotes a playful state of mind.

Photo Credit: Business Images


Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life by Peter Gray. In the introduction to this chapter, Gray writes about a research experiment performed on pool players about 30 years ago, which found that when the players were closely observed, expert players performed much better while beginners performed much worse.

The Power of Play: Four Conclusions

The four conclusions discussed here—each of which is supported by numerous experiments—are well known to research psychologists who study learning and performance, but not so well known to educators. Taken as a whole, they show that learning, problem solving, and creativity are worsened by interventions that interfere with playfulness and improved by interventions that promote playfulness.

Pressure to Perform Well Interferes with New Learning

This is the conclusion supported by research such as that described in the chapter introduction. An easy way to apply pressure to perform well in a research study is to observe and evaluate the performance in a way that is obvious to the performer. Dozens of experiments have shown that such pressure worsens performance in those who are not yet highly skilled at a task or who are just beginning to learn it. People “just playing” at pool, or at math, or at coming up with clever rebuttals to arguments, do better than those who are trying to impress an evaluator—unless they are already highly skilled at the task.

Pressure to Be Creative Interferes with Creativity

Psychologist Theresa Amabile has devoted a distinguished career, mostly at Brandeis University, to studying creativity. In a typical experiment she would ask groups of people—sometimes kids, sometimes adults—to do a creative task, such as to paint a picture, make a collage, or write a poem, within a certain time period. Each experiment involved some sort of manipulation aimed at increasing the participants’ motivation. She would tell some but not others that their product would be evaluated and ranked for creativity, or that it would be entered into a contest, or that they could receive a reward for creative work.

When the projects were completed, she would have them all evaluated for creativity by a panel of judges who did not know about the experimental manipulations. Creativity is hard to define, but the judges showed significant consistency in their evaluations. They gave highest rankings to projects that were original and surprising yet also somehow satisfying, meaningful, and coherent.

The overriding result of the experiments was this: any intervention that increased the incentive to be creative had the effect of reducing creativity. In experiment after experiment, the most creative products were made by those who were in the non-incentive condition—the ones who worked under the impression that their products would not be evaluated or entered into contests and who were not offered any prizes. They thought they were just creating the product for fun. In the terminology of this chapter, they were playing.

If you want to increase the degree to which people will pull hard on a rope, or persist at some boring, repetitive task, such as shelling beans or copying sentences, you can succeed by giving them an incentive to perform better. If you enter them into a contest, or watch them conspicuously, or pay them well for excellent performance, their performance improves. But creativity doesn’t work that way. High incentive seems to foul up rather than improve the process. You can’t become creative by simply trying really, really hard. Creativity is a spark that comes when mental conditions are just right, and high incentive seems to mess up those conditions.