Lessons from Larks: What Play Can Say About How Children Learn

If you ask parents and teachers, they'll say that children go to school to learn. But ask children their favorite part of school, and often they say "recess," "free time," or "lunch." At first blush, these are cross-purposes; but on further consideration the kids' response teaches you about how children learn. Elements of play can bring life to stodgy grown-up goals and purpose to energetic youthful fun.

Social Interaction

Elementary school is a time for social development as much as it is for learning content. This is why elementary education includes recess. Group work can contribute to social development and harness some of that social energy for subject learning.

Study groups have long been used for science labs and book discussions, but it may be beneficial beyond these parameters, as demonstrated by a 1996 research project. Although writing is typically an individual activity, teachers experimented with a wide range of collaborative writing techniques. The results were encouraging: students developed a more nuanced writing voice.

Free Choice

In an ideal world, students would be independently driven to learn by an inherent, burning curiosity. However, in the real world, that curiosity is sometimes more of a smolder.

Part of the appeal of recess and lunch is the students' open-ended freedom: they decide what to do and who to do it with. Often lesson plans bind the who, what, and when to the learning why. But this traditional degree of control might not always be necessary – or even desirable.

Students in a 2010 study experienced greater intrinsic motivation and felt more confidence when they were allowed to choose the form of homework assignments. The opportunity to choose one dimension of the unit had given a smoldering interest the space to flare into flame. These students also performed better in the units' final assessment.


Sometimes all the free-choice in the world couldn't ignite a particular combination of student and subject. The extrinsic rewards of games can draw in uninterested students or enliven dry material.

For students with access to technological gadgetry, kids' fascination with tablet games can help with learning. In a 2012 study, kindergarteners whose classroom instruction was supplemented with classroom iPads for nine weeks scored higher on literacy tests than students without the devices. A 2011 study found similar encouraging results in second grade math classes.

Striking a Balance

Although these methods merit consideration, they are not without their faults. Alfie Kohn is always one to question the use of extrinsic motivation. Tom Bennett raises questions about group work worthy of consideration. And a 2006 study found that the efficacy of free-choice dependents on the type of skills being taught. But by considering the criticism with the praise, we can balance structure and freedom, work and play, to better teach the kids we serve.

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