WINTER 2011 21
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To recognize the vital role of play in learning, teachers need to
understand the connection between neuroscience and learning.
Neuroscience has tremendous potential for revolutionizing
what goes on in schools. As Dr. Fraser Mustard, an eminent
Canadian physician and advocate for play-based early learn-
ing, observes, “The merging of the neuroscience story with the
developmental story has increased our understanding of how
fundamental the first years of a child’s life are in laying the
base for the future. We are beginning to understand the linkage
between the way the brain develops and the neurological and
biological pathways that affect learning, behavior and health
throughout life.” Much has been discovered over the years
about how the brain learns, and it is truly astonishing that
educators, by and large, make so little use of this knowledge.
With knowledge of child development and neuroscience,
educators are equipped to provide the very best learning oppor-
tunities for children. While teachers of young children have
been most open to applying this knowledge, all educators need
to put it into practice. At any age, learning is first and foremost
the product of self-directed experience. As American psycholo-
gist and learning theorist Jerome Bruner once wrote, “We only
truly know what we have discovered for ourselves.”
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Engaging Primary Learners Through Play
This is an excerpt from the new ETFO resource Primarily Play: Engaging Primary learners through play. Written
by Dr. Janet Millar Grant, an executive staff officer in Professional Services at ETFO, and Susanne Eden, formerly
an associate professor of education at York University, it is available from shopETFO; shopetfo@etfo.org.
Neuroscience helps us understand learning in the following
ways.
4 The brain is constantly changing. How the brain is shaped
in the early years will have an effect on how well the brain
functions in later life. It grows as a result of learning – one
synapse at a time.
4 Experiences change the shape of the brain. Nourishing our
brains through many varied interactions with people and
things in our environment builds the foundation for lifelong
learning.
4 Emotion has a profound effect on learning. When the
learner feels safe, comfortable, and happy, learning occurs
with ease. Tension, stress, and feelings of inadequacy
inhibit learning.
4 Motivation is the product of interest and engagement. Even
those who have been labelled as having attention deficit
disorder can concentrate for long periods of time when the
activity is interesting and derived from personal needs.
Neuroscience supports a “constructivist” view of learning: that
the learner constructs knowledge from experience, and assimi-
lates new information into his or her existing cognitive map. In
accommodating new information, new thoughts connect with
existing frameworks to allow for more complex understanding.
The importance of play

WINTER 2011
22
Key points about learning and instruction
1. LEARNING IS SOCIAL
For centuries, we have assumed that learning in school
must take place without social distractions. Isolating chil-
dren by such practices as seating them in rows, giving them
individual worksheets and assignments, and giving them
warnings like “No talking” and “Do your own work” act
against learning.
If does not matter whether the subject of the children’s
conversation is their classroom activity. The important thing
is that the children are in contact with others. A silent class-
room lacks something fundamental to learning, especially in
the early years. Quiet times have a place, but the hum of
creativity and friendship is a sign of a happy learning envi-
ronment. Educators need to train their ear to the difference
between the noise generated by creative play and the noise
generated by chaos. Play has a happy, light-hearted tone
while chaos is fractious and belligerent.
The social nature of learning means that communication is
an essential element of play. Children learn by using lan-
guage in the context of the situations that they have created.
They use the semantics of language to create meaning and
the structure of language to communicate their thoughts;
they explore the pragmatic uses of language as they interact
with others. Oral language is a key component of literacy
and has strong links to reading and writing. As children
communicate during play, they use the vocabulary associ-
ated with the context. Expanding vocabulary is important
for understanding the meaning of texts that are read and is
critical to communicating ideas in writing.
Think about it
What are the opportunities for children to talk and
engage with others in the classroom? How are they using
language? What is the focus of children’s talk?
2. THE HUMAN BRAIN IS WIRED TO LEARN
All children are compelled from within to learn. They do not
need a series of lessons or happy-face stickers to motivate
them to learn how to walk and talk. This miracle of learning
is witnessed by every parent, and by every educator, the
world over. Yet we fail to understand the internal desire
to learn in terms of learning in school. As with all signifi-
cant learning through life, this urge to learn comes out of
a profound need to connect with the social and physical
environment in which we find ourselves. In schools, educa-
tors too often resort to external rewards and punishments
which, over the long-term, erode the power of the intrinsic,
self-directed motivation to learn. Is it any wonder that by
the time children are in high school, learning has become a
matter of “memorizing stuff,” and feeding back to teachers
what students think they want to hear? Learning becomes
little more than trying to “guess what’s in the teacher’s
mind.”
When children are engaged in play, they make decisions,
take control, and seek solutions. Given the opportunity to
make choices and decisions, children are empowered as
learners and develop confidence in their abilities.
Think about it
If children are wired to learn, what are they interested
in learning about? What intrigues them? What motivates
them?
3. LEARNING IS A HOLISTIC PROCESS
The most beneficial condition for learning occurs when all
areas of development – physical, emotional, cognitive, and
social – are proceeding as they should.

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We are keenly aware of the impact of stress upon our
own productivity as adults. We despair of solving a logic
puzzle or a computer glitch when we are worried, tense,
or exhausted. It is only when we leave a problem until the
next day that we find the solution has been staring us in the
face all along.
But we totally ignore this understanding in many school
situations. How different the scores on a test might be if we
recognized that a child has had no food; has been cower-
ing under the bed all night, frightened by verbal or physical
violence in the home; or simply does not perform well under
pressure. We continue to value a quiet, tidy classroom – but
learning is often anything but quiet and tidy.
For children, play is their way of growing: physically, emo-
tionally, socially and cognitively.
Consider the learning that occurs as children build collab-
oratively with hardwood blocks of different shapes and sizes.
4 Cognitively, children learn about structures and balance
as they create a building, about symmetry as they
create a balanced look, about position as they view
the structure from various angles. They develop and
use social skills as they plan what to do, listen to each
other’s ideas, negotiate roles, and share materials.
4 Language develops through social use with others. As
they engage with others, or with an adult, children use
language to describe what they have done, to explain
how it works, to reflect on problems and solutions.
4 Problem solving occurs when children try to find the
block that will fit the space, when they have to change
plans if the building isn’t strong enough and collapses.
4 Emotionally, children develop patience and persistence
as they try over and over again to place the last block
on the top without having the building topple over.
They develop confidence as they gain control over the
materials and experience success.
4 Physically, fine-motor skills continue to develop as
children hold objects and insert them into place and try
to balance and position blocks.
Think about it
How do the materials and activities support children’s
development in all areas?
4. LEARNING IS NEITHER AN EFFICIENT PROCESS NOR
BEST GENERATED THROUGH INSTRUCTION
The trouble with the natural process of learning is that,
although predictable, it is not a tidy, systematic endeavour.
There is a good deal of redundancy as a learner repeats an
activity or explores and idea over and over again before it
becomes permanently established. Centuries ago, educators
found that rote learning was more efficient. If the learner
would simply memorize what the teacher presented, things
would progress much faster. A test could be given, and mas-
tery assessed. This sounds compelling but it is not learning.
Instead, it is what Russian developmental psychologist Lev
Vygotsky calls “parrot-like learning that masks a vacuum.”
The knowledge and/or skill has not been internalized.
Think about it
What is valued about learning in the classroom? How are
children’s needs, interests, and background accounted for
in instruction?
Instruction that relies on a passive, uninvolved learner leads
to the pervasive boredom that strikes so many students
as they progress into high school. In Weapons of Mass
Instruction, John Taylor Gatto observes that not only are the
kids bored, but the teachers are as well. The idealism and
energy that propelled them into a career in education have
long since evaporated in the tedium of mandatory curriculum
that excites neither teacher nor student.
Think about it
How do children have a voice in the classroom? What are
the opportunities for making choices and decisions?
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Type of Play
Ages 4 6
Ages 5 7
Ages 7 9
Exploration
What is it?
Properties and characteristics:
conservation of matter, spatial
relations, etc.
Mainly personal pursuit, interest.
What can it do?
Investigation of concrete objects,
as well as situations and events
What can I do with it?
Collaborative discoveries.
Sharing ideas
Pretend play
Symbolic representation of one
object for another.
May co-operate, share space,
toys, and theme but all
participants may play the same
role or do the same action.
Rely on personal experience as
source for pretending.
Socio-dramatic play soars.
Themes include community such
as riding a bus, restaurant, etc.
The putting on of the play may
take over from the actual play
itself.
Begin to differentiate
complementary roles.
Continue to rely on personal
experience but beginning to use
fantasy and make-believe.
Roles work together to tell a
story.
Games with rules
Generally, play along side one
another without much interest in
how others are doing.
Tend to make up rules as they
go along.
Begin to attend to rules and turn
taking.
Competition prevails with
stringent attention to rules.
Being on the team becomes
increasingly more critical.
Development of play across the Primary division