Education hasn’t changed that much since the days of armor-clad knights and candlelight – well before the printing press and, more recently, the internet made information a commodity. Educators lecture.

“It is literally a medieval instruction technique,” says Alison Gopnik, a University of California-Berkeley professor and child psychologist. “We’ve been doing it for hundreds and hundreds of years. And the fact is we have no evidence at all – in fact, we have some evidence to the contrary – for this being a good way to get anybody to learn.”

Lecture. Image by Greg Lilly.

A majority of educators – from grade school teachers to university professors – abide by the classic lecture model because it’s what has seemingly always been done. It works well enough, it’s straightforward to test for knowledge retention (or literacy or numeracy), and students aren’t dying of boredom at their desks.

While it isn’t the best way for students to learn, as Gopnik points out, the good news is that the lecture model may soon fall out of fashion (finally). More people than ever before seem to be searching for and experimenting with alternative methods to activate the human skills children need to succeed in the 21st century.

“It’s not about doing more earlier. It’s not about teaching them to read or write earlier and earlier. It’s actually about making sure they’ve got some of the underpinning skills on which so much of the rest of their life is going to be based,” said the LEGO Foundation’s global head of research and learning, Andrew Bollington, in a recent Google+ Hangout.

Those skills include creativity, teamwork, problem-solving, and leadership. Learning through play, Bollington said, is perhaps the most developmentally appropriate way for young children to develop those capacities: “It’s the way children learn, and want to learn, and naturally learn, unless, frankly, you stop them.”

A recent study designed by three psychologists at the University of Hildesheim in Germany supports Bollington’s theory. They found a “surprisingly high” correlation between childhood play and social success in adulthood – “child play is a valuable and flexible learning opportunity,” and that play not only boosts self-esteem and psychological health, but also helps an individual’s ability to adapt to problems and obstacles.

In other words play pays, especially in the rapidly changing world we live in. Add their study to the growing pile of research that suggests that play may very well be the key to prosperity

Margot playing. Image by Lee Cullivan.

And yet many teachers and administrators still mistake play for “a four-letter word – like it’s a waste of time, or something extra,” says Geralyn McLaughlin, an educator at the Mission Hill School in Boston.

McLaughlin cites US government initiative Race to the Top – which much like No Child Left Behind is structured around high-stakes, “high quality assessments” (which control curriculum) – and rigorous Common Core standards as contributing factors in the disappearance of play.

“Those academic expectations are out of sync with the real intellectual pursuits that early childhood children can actually engage in,” she said.

That sentiment, and experience, is shared by Ashoka Fellow Dina Buchbinder. She’s the founder of Deportes para Compartir, an initiative developed in partnership with the Mexican Association for the United Nations, which uses interactive games to instill civic values in children and encourage them to think critically about social issues.

“I’m impressed, always, to see that in the beginning of our training sessions with teachers, teachers have a blast,” she said. “But when they’re about to implement this methodology with their children, you can see how some of the teachers are scared to play.

“Why? Because teachers haven’t seen play in a long time. It’s not a regular methodology, so there’s a tendency to regard it as lost time.”

Parents (who always want the best for their children) in many cases also view playful learning with skepticism, even though majority of parents believe that play is essential for social, emotional, cognitive and physical development.

These three innovators working to re-imagine learning agree: parents, educators, administrators, and legislators must begin to appreciate the value and the benefits that result from play. That won’t happen without more advocates for whole-child development. 

Will you be a champion for play?

For more insights from Bollington, McLaughlin and Buchbinder, as well as from Susan Ochshorn of ECE PolicyWorks, check out Ashoka’s Google+ HangoutA Conversation About the Power of Play.”

  • As part of a three-year partnership with Ashoka, the LEGO Foundation has pledged more than $200,000 to challenge prizes alone. Enter today and help us learn about your vision for education in the 21st century! 

– By John Converse Townsend, media manager at Ashoka Changemakers covering entrepreneurship and smart solutions to social problems. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnCTownsend

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