Learning Through Fantasy Play

My last blog post offered a list of some of the activities our students are engaged in since the Philly Free School opened its doors for the first time on Sept 6, 2011. Each day at the school has been so full that writing entries has proven near impossible. And yet the desire to do so has been great, as a means to record some of what is happening here. Here is a sliver of a deeper look at the learning I’ve observed while staffing at the school.

When we were still founding the school, we would sometimes hold informational meetings at which we’d ask those who came to name some of the outcomes from school that they want for kids. Answers were usually along the lines of, “I want kids to learn to be…

* happy
* responsible for themselves
* engaged in their community (have friends, etc)
* critical thinkers
* effective communicators
* creative & innovative
* able to find and evaluate trustworthy resources

Lest the priorities of these strangers at our Info Sessions fail to hold much weight with you, you might find it interesting that this list nearly mirrors the Seven Survival Skills identified by Harvard-based education expert Tony Wagner in his 2008 book, The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best Schools Don’t Teach the New Survival Skills Our Children Need–And What We Can Do About It. Here are Wagner’s seven skills:

1) critical thinking and problem solving
2) collaboration across networks and leading by influence;
3) agility and adaptability
4) initiative and entrepreneurship
5) effective oral and written communication
6) accessing and analyzing information
7) curiosity and imagination.

The students at the Philly Free School are well on their way to developing in each of these areas. Are they memorizing the periodic table? No. Do they know the battle names from the War of 1812? Nope. Are any of them elbow-deep in algebra? Not yet. What they are primarily doing is playing. And by playing, they are learning these far more important lessons.

I’ll offer just one example of learning by playing, for now. Look around, and you will see a clan of students engrossed in captivating imaginative play, also known as Secret Agent Vampire Princess Swordfighter Kitty Cats in the Snow Monster Cave. This “game” utterly absorbs, entertains, and yes, teaches them much more effectively than any clever lesson plan could. What are they learning? For starters, they are learning about friendship, power, and the sharing of resources. Who comes up with the game? Who takes which role? Does the mama cat do the kitten’s bidding, or the other way around? When are the roles switched, if ever? What happens when there aren’t enough walkie talkies/swords/paper crowns to go around? They are also learning about rules– making them, following them, pushing their limits, and continually recreating them– since every scenario is fraught with all manner of self-imposed limitations and regulations– thus making it interesting over a long period of time.

But does this learning help them in “real” life? Indeed, for in this imaginative play they are doing no less than creating models of the world, breaking them down, and creating them anew. How else do humans evolve? How else did Steve Jobs reinvent personal computing? As Daniel Greenberg, the co-founder of the Sudbury Valley School, writes in Worlds in Creation:

“In play, a person can survey a given situation and create an unlimited number of new responses to it. In play, a person can hypothesize, in his imagination, an unlimited number of new situations, and create responses to them as well. Creative people must “play” with ideas, with theories, with new behavior patterns. Successful research institutions know this, and make provision for it. The more creative people we want in our society, the more opportunity for play must be provided; and, as in any other domain of human behavior, the more comfortable people are with play at an early age, the better they will be at it — and at producing creative outcomes — the rest of their lives.”

Greenberg has more to say– read it here. And the lessons learned from Secret Agent Vampire Kitty Cats also apply to lessons learned from video games, which many of our teens and tweens spend time with. Today’s video games are a different form of fantasy play, “worlds in creation,” and are immensely social and complex. They usually involve several players, and require a long term commitment to skill development, character creation, and multiple failures and resurrections over periods of time. Both absorbing fantasy milieus do similar work, and help students learn each and every one of Wagner’s Seven Skills. Problem solving: check. Collaboration: check. Agility: check. And so on.
There is so much more to be said on this topic– I haven’t even mentioned art and music yet, or the Clean Up Clerk drama, or the Judicial Committee. Let’s leave it at “to be continued,” and hope I can stay out of the Snow Monster Cave long enough to write more soon….

Respectfully submitted by Michelle Loucas
PFS Blog entry 12/21/11

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