Why Students Learn Better in a Playful Environment

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.

As Amabile herself points out, her findings are no surprise to people who make their living by being creative. Many highly successful novelists, playwrights, artists, musicians, and poets have written, or stated in interviews, that to think and produce creatively, they must forget about pleasing an audience, or pleasing critics, or winning prizes, or earning royalties. All such thoughts stifle creativity. Instead they must focus fully on the product they are trying to create, as if creating it for its own sake. For example, when the eminent novelist John Irving was asked whether he worried, when writing, about whether a book would sell, he responded, “No, no, oh no. You can’t, you can’t! . . . When you’re writing, only think about the book.”

Inducing a Playful Mood Improves Creativity and Insightful Problem Solving

In an experiment performed after most of Amabile’s classic studies, Paul Howard-Jones and his colleagues demonstrated a way to improve artistic creativity. In their experiment, young children were asked to produce collages, which were then assessed for creativity by a panel of judges. Before producing the collage, some of the children were put into a playful mood by allowing them twenty-five minutes of free play with salt dough. The other children spent that twenty-five-minute period at a nonplayful task, copying text. The result was that those in the play condition made collages that were judged to be significantly more creative than did those in the nonplay condition.

Other researchers—most notably psychologist Alice Isen, who is now at Cornell University—have studied the effect of mood on the ability to solve insight problems. Insight problems require some kind of creative leap, which allows the person to see the problem differently than before. Such problems often seem impossible up until the moment of insight, after which the solution seems obvious. A classic example of such a problem, used in countless psychological experiments after its development in the 1940s, is Duncan’s candle problem.

In this task, research participants are given a small candle, a book of matches, and a box of tacks and are asked to attach the candle to a bulletin board in a way that the candle can be lit and will burn properly. They are allowed to use no objects other than those they are given. The trick to solving the problem is to realize that the tacks can be dumped out of the box and the box can then be tacked to the bulletin board and used as a shelf on which to mount the candle. In the typical test situation, most people, including students at elite colleges, fail to solve this problem within the allotted time period. They fail to see that the tack box can be used for something other than a container for tacks. In Isen’s experiment, some of the college student participants watched a five-minute clip from a slapstick comedy film before being presented with the candle problem. A second group saw a five-minute serious film about mathematics, and a third group saw no film. The results were dramatic. Seventy-five percent of the students who saw the comedy, compared to only 20 percent and 13 percent of the students in the other two groups, respectively, solved the problem successfully. Just five minutes of humor, which had nothing to do with the candle problem, made the problem solvable for the majority of participants.

In other experiments, Isen and her colleagues showed that mood manipulations can improve insight in many other situation as well, including situations that could have life-or-death significance. In one such experiment, the researchers presented real physicians with a case history of a difficult-to-diagnose liver disease. The case included some misleading information, which created a barrier to identifying the relevant information and arriving at the correct solution. Mood manipulation was accomplished by giving some of the doctors a little bag of candy before presenting them with the problem. Consistent with Isen’s expectations, those who got the bag of candy arrived at the correct diagnosis more quickly than those who didn’t. They reasoned more flexibly, took into account all of the information more readily, and were less likely to get stuck on false leads than were those who had not received candy.

Isen and other theorists who refer to her work describe such experiments as showing that a “positive mood” improves creative, insightful reasoning. I would be more specific and suggest that the particular type of positive mood that is most effective is a playful mood. I suspect that the slapstick movie led college students to feel, “Hey, this experiment is about having fun, not a test,” and I suspect that the little bag of candy had a similar effect on the physicians. Of course, the real trick for a physician is to maintain that mood during the serious business of real diagnosis.

A Playful State of Mind Enables Young Children to Solve Logic Problems

In experiments conducted in England, M. G. Dias and P. L. Harris found that young children could solve logic problems in the context of play that they seemed unable to solve in a serious context. The problems were syllogisms, the classic type of logic problem originally described by Aristotle. A syllogism requires a person to combine the information in two premises to decide whether a particular conclusion is true, false, or indeterminate (cannot be determined from the premises). Syllogisms are generally easy when the premises coincide with concrete reality, but are more difficult when the premises are counterfactual (contradictions to reality). The prevailing belief at the time that the British researchers conducted these experiments was that the ability to solve counterfactual syllogisms depends on a type of reasoning that is completely lacking in young children.

Here’s an example of a counterfactual syllogism the researchers used:

All cats bark (major premise). Muffins is a cat (minor premise).

Does Muffins bark?

Previous research—including research by the famous Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget—had shown that children under about ten or eleven years old regularly fail to solve such syllogisms correctly—that is, they fail to give answers that logicians take as the correct answers. When the British researchers put syllogisms like this to young children in a serious tone of voice, the children answered as Piaget and others would expect. They said things like, “No, cats go meow, they don’t bark.” They acted as if they were unable to think about a premise that did not fit with their concrete, real-world experiences. But when the researchers presented the same problems in a playful tone of voice, which made it clear that they were talking about a pretend world, children as young as four years old regularly solved the problems. They said, “Yes, Muffins barks.”

Think of it: four-year-olds in play easily solved logic problems that they were not supposed to be able to solve until they were about ten or eleven years old. In fact, subsequent experiments showed that, to a lesser degree, even two-year-olds solved such problems when presented in a clearly playful manner.  I’ll explain later why these results should not be as surprising as they seemed to many people. But perhaps you can already see why they shouldn’t.

ALL OF THESE FINDINGS tell us something about the power of play. Learning, creativity, and problem solving are facilitated by anything that promotes a playful state of mind, and they are inhibited by evaluation, expectation of rewards, or anything else that destroys a playful state of mind. But this raises a new, big question: What exactly is play, and what makes it such a powerful force for learning, creativity, and problem solving?

Copyright © 2013. Reprinted with permission of Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group.


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