“The longer children engage in meaningful investigation of an idea the deeper their understanding of the topic grows.”
- Pam Oken-Wright
Children are born explorers, inquirers and investigators. They display a fearlessness and creativity that often become restrained as they grow older. Traditional education, running against these natural inclinations, imposed a learning model built on conformity and repetition, one that erroneously applied principles of the Industrial Revolution. Yet modern research into both child development and neuroscience has increasingly supported educational standards based in play, discovery and experimentation.
Schools of the past expected students to learn the same content at the same pace in the same manner. Motivation existed in extrinsic punishments and grades, and specialization necessarily took a central role as children prepared to enter particular trades. This approach simply doesn’t suit the modern context or our understanding of learning. Students—and young children in particular—thrive in less structured settings that provide boundaries, but allow a degree of freedom.
This open approach to learning enables students to follow their own agendas during play and exploration, meaning that they have the highest level of engagement as they make decisions and follow their own interests. Meanwhile, they are still learning all the foundational skills to prepare them for ongoing learning, including communication skills, social skills, problem solving and even basic curricula knowledge such as math concepts, written language practice and scientific theories. Engaging children in this manner taps into the most fundamental fact of learning: we learn the most when we are internally motivated to do so.
By allowing children the freedom to frame their learning through inquiry and play, schools benefit not only from higher student interest and motivation, but also more effective learning. Longitudinal studies of play-based schools indicate that their students attach greater meaning to tasks they freely initiate and ultimately perform higher over the long term. The burden is thus on educators to help children develop a love of learning. Engagement through inquiry and play has proven to be successful in accomplishing this, and we must acknowledge that students learn best when they are free to be children.