The power of play

By Sheila Moorcroft

Play has always been an essential part of learning. New approaches to helping children to develop their technical and other skills through play are emerging. They may indicate a more flexible approach to learning, and will fit better with the expectations of the connected generation too.  They are also creating business opportunities and ushering in the personalised learning era.

What is changing?

On the technology front several schemes have shown how children can learn technical skills, even from a very low skill base.

  • The Raspberry Pi, a very small computer, recently sold its one millionth machine; mainly to schools. The aim is to encourage children to develop an understanding of computing and programming; the appeal for many, it seems, is that it is also fun. Similarly, the Bigshot camera kit helps youngsters learn about electronics by assembling their own digital camera.
  • In India, and other developing nations, there are now about 500 ‘Hole in the Wall’ computers, installed much as an ATM is in walls in public spaces; hence the name. They are mainly in poor areas of cities and children are left to discover them, explore and play – learning technical skill, numeracy and literacy as they go.
  • In Ethiopia, MIT’s media lab left 100 Motorola Xoom tablet computers, ready charged but in their boxes and with no instructions, into villages, where few if anyone read, and no one had ever seen a computer. Within 5 days the children were using 47 apps, within 2 weeks singing ABC in English.
  • Computer games and virtual worlds take play and learning many steps further, and are increasingly being used to explore complex issues and help players learn new skills in different situations – from being a journalist in a war zone to doing a ward round in a hospital. See Trend Alerts: Can video games change the world?  Games without Frontiers, Gaming Gets Serious.

Conjuring an interest in science and technology is the focus of the STEAM circus in the USA, a collection of high tech fun and games which will travel from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Using all sorts of competitions, digital art galleries, a musical robot concert, and a fashion show with wearable technology the aim is to encourage interest in science and technology.

But it is not only technology skills that are important. Participation is the name of the game at Kidzania, a new educational theme park in India. It is designed to help young visitors to develop skills by role playing working in a bank, a chocolate factory or a TV station or as a journalist. They even get a skills-assessment. The Kidzania theme park also draws on corporate sponsors to help run the different ‘installations’.


Technology skills are critical to future individual, corporate and national success. Many of these projects are aimed at developing such skills by engaging with children in new ways to show that science and technology related subjects are interesting and relevant. Hands on experience and the opportunity to explore are important; schools and companies need to look for ways to draw on the new technologies.

Children are increasingly connected and technology literate, even in emerging economies; as the internet goes mobile and tablet computers get cheaper that will be more and more the case. Gen Y, the first of the mobile, internet and gaming generations, are already showing the ways in which their relationship with technology is changing the workplace and their approach to learning. And we almost certainly ain’t seen nothing yet.

But perhaps most importantly, as the technologies get cheaper and levels of connectivity continue to grow, so games and playing will provide a much more flexible approach to learning, updating content, providing access to learning. We all learn in different ways and at different speeds. Many of these approaches will take us out of the mass production education system, into the personalised learning era. Just as the MOOC is challenging the university model so new forms of play are challenging the school education model.

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