Playing to learn, playing for fun, and embodied cognition

February 2, 2010 at 10:58 pm Leave a comment

A quick recap of three interesting NYT articles this week about the body, play, and learning:

In “Abstract Thoughts? The Body Takes Them Literally,” Natalie Angier explains some of the more interesting findings from the emerging field of embodied cognition. In one study out of Yale, researchers discovered that individuals who were handling a cup of hot coffee “before evaluating the personality of a person based on a packet of information were far likelier to judge the fictitious character as warm and friendly than were those who had held iced coffee.”

The body embodies abstractions the best way it knows how: physically. What is moral turpitude, an ethical lapse, but a soiling of one’s character? One study showed that participants who were asked to dwell on a personal moral transgression like adultery or cheating on a test were more likely to request an antiseptic cloth afterward than were those who had been instructed to recall a good deed they had done.

In “Playing to Learn,” Susan Engel advocates for a play-based curriculum:

In order to design a curriculum that teaches what truly matters, educators should remember a basic precept of modern developmental science: developmental precursors don’t always resemble the skill to which they are leading. For example, saying the alphabet does not particularly help children learn to read. But having extended and complex conversations during toddlerhood does. Simply put, what children need to do in elementary school is not to cram for high school or college, but to develop ways of thinking and behaving that will lead to valuable knowledge and skills later on.

During the school day, there should be extended time for play. Research has shown unequivocally that children learn best when they are interested in the material or activity they are learning. Play — from building contraptions to enacting stories to inventing games — can allow children to satisfy their curiosity about the things that interest them in their own way. It can also help them acquire higher-order thinking skills, like generating testable hypotheses, imagining situations from someone else’s perspective and thinking of alternate solutions.

And finally, Mark Hyman reports on the research of a high school student in Connecticut who is motivated to learn why youths play sports:

From the mound of data he gathered, [15 year-old Peter] Barston found a striking pattern. No matter how he categorized the responses, the most important reason youngsters gave for playing sports was the same: to have fun. That was the top response from football and basketball players, from boys and from girls, and from players in each grade from fourth to eighth. In the basketball survey, 95 percent of boys and 98 percent of girls cited fun as a reason for playing, nearly twice the number who mentioned winning.

His preliminary findings are not far from what the Michigan State researchers Martha Ewing and Vern Seefeldt concluded in 1989. Their study of 28,000 boys and girls around the country asked, Why do you play sports? The top answer then was “fun,” followed by “to do something I’m good at” and “to improve my skills.” “Winning” did not crack the top 10.

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Jason R. Atwood

I'm an avid trail runner and doctoral student at U.C. Berkeley who studies motivation and the relationship between the mind and body. This blog is a forum to share research, news, and musings about these topics of interest. More

Play is the beginning of knowledge.

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