Playing to learn!


For children, substitute Cambridge Dons!

For children, substitute Cambridge Dons!

I can’t remember the first time I encountered Lego. It certainly wasn’t during my childhood, but may have been at some point when I was training to be a teacher. Certainly by the time our sons were born the colourful dimpled bricks were very popular, and I spent many happy hours constructing a great range of imaginative buildings, vehicles and other artefacts with them. In fact I suspect that I was at least as keen as they were to play with the many boxes full of Lego that we acquired over a number of years. (These have been carefully stored, and I look forward to getting them out for my grand children before too long!)

I was somewhat surprised to discover that the first connecting bricks were produced by the Lego company in Denmark as early as 1949. Though I understand that they did not quite resemble the magnificent construction kit with which we have become familiar, and were called “Automatic Binding Bricks,” not exactly a name that trips off the tongue.

It is almost certain that any child (regardless of age) who has played with Lego over the years will agree that this relatively simple toy provides not only many hours of enjoyment, but also plenty of learning opportunities. Indeed, Lego provides a fine example of how play can stimulate the imagination, assist in the development of motor co-ordination and encourage problem solving and spatial skills. Such is its versatility that it is difficult to say whether Lego should be categorised as a toy, or a piece of educational equipment, or perhaps we should recognise that these are false descriptions.

When our sons were very young, we cycled as a family to the original Legoland in Billund, Denmark and had a wonderful day marvelling at the ingenious structures, entirely constructed from coloured bricks. These sculptural features were obviously far more ambitious than anything that we could ever have considered building at home, but I’m quite sure that early after our return home we would have done our best to imitate some of the wondrous structures we had seen.

All of this came to mind today as I discovered that the University of Cambridge, an undoubtedly prestigious seat of learning, is about to appoint a “Professorship of Play in Education, Development, and Learning,” sponsored by the Lego Foundation. The appointed academic will become director of a new Research Centre on Play in Education, Development, and Learning, which the LEGO Foundation is supporting with a £1.5 million, donation.

Before any of my colleagues ask the question, I can assure them that I have no intention of applying for this interesting post. I am neither qualified, or sufficiently experienced to lead research into play, and curious as I may be about a Lego Professorship, I expect that the amount of time available for playing with coloured bricks will be severely limited. (If this is not the case, then I certainly could be tempted!) It is, however, refreshing to see one of the UKs most respected educational institutions, recognising the importance of play as part of the learning process.

At a time when many politicians and policy makers talk of education only in terms of “academic outcomes”, it takes a certain chutzpah to make a bold statement about the importance of play. I do hope that the person appointed will have an opportunity to exert influence and express the importance of play in the learning of all children and adults. The positive impact of play has been well documented by researchers, though there are many who would prefer not to take account of their findings. So, let’s give a round of applause to both Cambridge University and Lego for forming this unique partnership.

Of course, it is fun to let the imagination run wild. I have an image in mind of a group of academics seated on a carpet, all clad in gowns and mortar boards, discussing colour patterns, the positioning of doors and windows and the interior layout of a new college building made entirely from Lego. How much might be learned I wonder? It’s a nice thought, and I suspect it will never happen – but wouldn’t it be fun if it did?


The building blocks of learning

Young architects and designers of the future learning through play with Lego

Young architects and designers of the future learning through play with Lego

In 1987 Sara and I, along with out two sons Tom and Toby cycled around part of Denmark. It was our first family holiday abroad and by travelling on bicycles and using youth hostels we managed to experience a new country and culture within our limited budget. We had a great trip taking in the Danish countryside, visiting museums, nature reserves and beaches and eating too many Danish pastries. Tom and Toby learned sufficient language to be polite and to order their favouring pastry and we all enjoyed meeting friendly people and the languid pace of travelling by bike – something that we have continued to do in many parts of Europe.

For the boys, one of the highlights of the tour was a visit to Billund and the original Legoland, which we managed towards the end of the journey. At home in England we were all familiar with the coloured plastic bricks and other components that make up Lego, surely one of the most incredible toys available on the market. Building houses, cars, towers and all kinds of imaginative constructions had occupied hours on the lounge floor and had brought pleasure and learning to the whole family. I am sure that I gained just as much enjoyment from Lego as did our sons and I am secretly looking forward to the time when our grandchildren are a little older and we can blow the cobwebs off the little plastic bricks and introduce them to hours of fun. (Actually, why wait? I might just get them out this weekend).

Yesterday I wrote a piece about the importance of play, citing recent research by David Whitebread who argues, with good reason, that play is important for children’s development and learning and should be recognised as such by parents and teachers alike. In response to my blog, my friend the artist Jean Edwards (do visit her work at ) drew my attention to a recent television programme about the importance of Lego. I use the word importance deliberately here, because the “Culture Show,” the programme, celebrating Lego as a toy also shows how it has had a major influence upon learning. In particular it focuses upon a number of significant architects, including Bjarke Ingels designer of the Tallin City Hall in Estonia and the Shenzhen International Energy Mansion in China who describe how their early informal experimentation with Lego shaped their ideas and taught them much about construction and design.

Early in the programme the presenter describes how a generation of architects, including Frank Lloyd-Wright and Le Corbusier had been inspired by Froebel’s simple wooden blocks to play at building and construction and experimenting with the use of shape and gaining an understanding of form and balance. However, Lego with its simple method of forming a more secure means of joining bricks afforded even greater opportunities for creative minds. Meccano, that other wonderful engineering toy also gets a mention and made a similar contribution to the development of others who went on to become significant designers – apparently it was a great favourite of Richard Rogers, architect of amongst others the European Court of Human Rights building in Strasbourg, the Welsh National Assembly Building in Cardiff and The Millennium Dome in London.

The Culture show programme, in addition to conducting interviews with a number of architects provides clips of children from across the last 60 years playing with construction toys – including Lego and Meccano. They are clearly learning, but equally important they are having fun. If ever there was concrete evidence (no pun intended) to justify the claims for the importance of play made by David Whitebread and others, it is to be found in this programme. Not only are the children shown learning how to handle materials and developing the fine motor skills required for construction, but they are also developing their imaginations, exercising natural creative instincts, solving problems and  experimenting with shape, space and form. Many of these skills and the knowledge that comes through experimentation are closely aligned to those that teachers of science, mathematics and technology seek to achieve, often through far more formal approaches. The imagination that is clearly portrayed in the excerpts of children playing with materials in the film must surely bode well for their potential as writers and thinkers.

It would undoubtedly have the potential for causing a nervous breakdown amongst some teachers if I were to dare to suggest that, even just once in a while, rather than setting homework they tell their students to spend a few hours playing and experimenting with any materials that come to hand. Yesterday I urged our politicians to make sandcastles or jump in puddles, today I am suggesting that we should all make time to build a den in the woods, dig a hole in the garden or get out the Lego bricks and better still do this with our children, our grandchildren or with other like minded adults. If you are frightened by the thought of how others might regard you, you could always do these things under the cover of darkness!

You can watch the Culture Show Programme at the link below


This 1954 Mecanno set shows French learners from two generations achieving engineering wonders with Meccanno

This 1954 box from a Meccano set shows French learners from two generations achieving engineering wonders with Meccanno

Let’s make time to play!

Summer is on the way - let's go and make some sandcastles!

Summer is on the way – let’s go and make some sandcastles!

“Puzzles not punctuation are key to clever toddlers,” thus ran a headline above an article written by Nicola Woolcock in today’s Times newspaper. The article reports the research of David Whitebread a respected academic from the University of Cambridge, in which he suggests that parents who play games with their young children are making a greater contribution to their learning than those who try to get them to read or solve mathematical problems. At a conference in Denmark Whitebread reportedly stated that if parents want their children to do well at school they should spend more time playing with them in early life. “Focusing on early reading achievement is, at best a waste of time, at worst damaging. Instead the parent should share something they love, such as making cakes or tinkering with engines,” says Whitebread.

Hallelujah! (sorry about that  – but that’s how it makes me feel).

Here is someone prepared to go against current trends that suggest we should be cramming children with formal learning virtually from the moment of birth, and is advocating a return to the common sense that contributed to effective child development for years. The urge to erode childhood and to treat children as empty vessels in need of filling with words and numbers seems to have dominated the discourse of education of late. David Whitebread is using his position and expertise to voice a concern that many of us feel with regards the need to respect children as self regulating learners.

As Whitebread reminds us, there is a wealth of evidence to demonstrate, how children who are encouraged to engage in exploratory play, and to interact in non-formal situations with trusted adults, become much more effective learners as they progress through school. Indeed, there is sufficient data to suggest that such children achieve better academic grades and are less likely to develop inappropriate behaviours or become involved in crime. Such facts are not popular with many of today’s politicians, but they need to be heralded with a far greater fanfare than has been evident of late.

The modern view of education, usually promulgated by those who have little experience of teaching or engagement in the school system, is that we should cram children with knowledge and rules, particularly in relation to mathematics and reading, as this will equip them better for today’s society. This does, however, lead me to ask a number of questions.  Firstly, is today’s society exactly what we want to replicate for the future? Should we be preparing children to live in society as it is, or would we rather have individuals capable of the kind of creative thinking that might assist us to improve upon the many challenges that we have created? Secondly, what kind of messages do we wish to convey to today’s generation of young learners? Do we want children who value learning other than that which takes place in formal situations and young people who learn to occupy their time in a constructive manner? Or are we happy to see a generation that has no appreciation of creativity, culture, spirituality or fun because it is not valued by the adults who determine their lives?

For me the most telling part of the Times article is where it quotes David Whitebread saying-

“Play is characterised as essentially unimportant, trivial and lacking serious purpose, something that children do because they are immature and will grow out of. On the contrary, play is one of the highest achievements of the human species. It enables the development of language, the arts, culture, science, maths and technology.”

Perhaps the problem might be that today’s education policy makers have themselves forgotten how to play.

So I say three cheers for David Whitebread and all others who believe in childhood. As for those who will undoubtedly attack him over the coming weeks I say, why not go to the beach and build a sandcastle, go to the park and fly a kite, find a few puddles to jump in, climb a tree, or if you must stay at home at least get out your building blocks?

Yes, today’s blog is another of those that is a bit of a rant – and no I don’t intend to apologise! (just off to play with my grandchildren)

Incidentally, today is William Shakespeare’s 450th birthday – now there was a man who knew how to play! Happy birthday Will.