Tes talks to…Anthony Pellegrini

The educational psychologist tells Helen Amass that while play is important for children’s development, we have little to gain from trying to incorporate it into lessons and teachers should focus on motivation and social skills instead

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Play is for the playground, not the classroom. This is what educational psychologist Anthony Pellegrini wants you to remember the next time you are planning a lesson based around interactive games or modelling clay.

He is not saying this to be a killjoy. He’s saying it to pass on the wisdom of years of research into how children play and how they learn – and to help you understand why “play” is not the same thing as making a lesson “fun”.

According to Pellegrini, a former preschool and elementary school teacher, the key difference between true play and a “fun” lesson is what is motivating a student to take part.

“Play is intrinsically motivating,” he explains. “We do it because we want to do it. If somebody tells you to do it, then it’s not intrinsically motivating.”

Essentially, if you are being made to “play” in the classroom, it isn’t really play.

“I’m not saying that [games in the classroom] are bad, but this is part of my mission: to say that not all things are play,” he says.

Helping to dispel the myths around the role of play has become something of a crusade for Pellegrini. He believes much of the confusion around the subject is caused by a failure to find an agreed definition of play.

“There are two schools of thought: basically, one saying that play is good, the other saying it’s trash. [But] what some people call play, other people don’t call play. It’s confusing,” he says.

Pellegrini has spent much of his career trying to come up with a definition that works and apply it to research on play. He is currently professor emeritus in the department of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota, where he continues to study play and its relevance to education, but his interest was first sparked during his dissertation.

“My dissertation was on kids talking to themselves as they solved problems. I spent a lot of time observing kids in preschools and I saw them doing this make-believe stuff and said, ‘Boy, this is interesting,’” he says.

The interest in play stuck. He adds that to really understand when play is play, you need to look at the objective.

“Play is where there’s not a concern with an end product. The process is more important. It is not ends-oriented, it’s means-oriented,” he says.

To explain this, Pellegrini uses the example of object play versus object use. Object play might involve a child taking a plastic brick, imagining that it is a rocket ship and then acting out a voyage with it. Object use, on the other hand, might involve a child taking several plastic bricks and using them to construct an end product, such as a tower.

The problem with trying to bring play – as defined in these terms – into the classroom is that just about everything that takes place in schools is ends-oriented, with the acquisition of skills and knowledge being the ultimate goal.

So in addition to failing the motivation test, as mentioned earlier, classroom play also fails the objective test.

But could being told to “play” in schools not be intrinsically motivating if done well?

This motivation is less likely to come from games, he believes, than from linking the learning to something that is relevant to the students you are working with, or showing them that something that really matters to them – being allowed to go out to play football, for example – is contingent on learning.

Learning isn’t a game

“You might say, ‘okay, in order to do “y”, you have to do “x”’ and show how they’re related. It’s not play, but it’s making something motivating,” Pellegrini says.

“I think if you can show kids how what’s in a lesson is interesting to them, important to them, that will be intrinsically motivating, rather than to say: ‘Hey, we’re going to play some games today.’

“Kids know that these aren’t just games. They know that you want them to do something. So I’m not sure that it’s a good idea.”

All this is not to say there is no place for play in the school environment, Pellegrini stresses. But where he sees play as essential is at breaktime.

“Breaktime is the only unstructured time that children have in school,” he says. “This unstructured time is crucial both in supporting concentration and giving pupils a chance to develop vital social skills.”

Having conducted experiments at elementary schools in the US state of Georgia, where pupils were given standardised tasks before and after breaktime – without them knowing exactly when breaktime would be – and measuring their levels of attention during these tasks, Pellegrini demonstrated that children were more attentive after a break than before it.

These results came as no surprise to him – or to his 10-year-old daughter.

“As my daughter said when I told her that kids are more attentive after recess than before: ‘Well, duh’,” Pellegrini says.

Improved attention was not the only benefit he found to unstructured breaktime. He also looked at the links between pupils’ academic achievement between Kindergarten and First Grade (Years 1 and 2 in the UK) and their levels of social interaction with peers in the playground.

What he found was that pupils who stuck close to the adults at breaktimes tended to be less socially competent than their peers – and that they achieved less highly as a result.

“When kids are interacting with other kids, it’s socially, cognitively and linguistically very complicated, because they have to negotiate. This is one of the reasons why it predicts achievement,” says Pellegrini.

All work and no play

As breaktime is often the one time in the school day where unstructured interactions can occur, it is the only opportunity that pupils get to develop these social skills that are crucial to achievement.

Rather than striving to bring “play” into their lessons, then, perhaps teachers would do better to try to recreate the unstructured social elements of breaktime instead?

“If your aim is to make kids socially competent, turn them loose and have them interact with each other,” Pellegrini says. “That’s how kids become socially competent with minimal adult intervention.”

But aside from that context, he is adamant play cannot be part of teachers’ lessons.

“That’s often not a popular message, because what people want to hear is ‘play is wonderful’,” Pellegrini admits. “My friend Peter Smith [emeritus professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London], calls it the ‘play ethos’: that play is all good to all people, all of the time. And that’s just not true.”

Such views may make Pellegrini unpopular, but he is unapologetic: his aim is to give children the best learning experiences possible.

“You sound like a real Scrooge saying stuff like this, but science is science. And when we’re doing education, you want to do what’s best for kids, families and schools. You’re not doing anybody any favours if you’re introducing this false bill of goods.”


Helen Amass is deputy commissioning editor at Tes. She tweets @Helen_Amass

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