Learning from play

Museums get kids excited about school subjects while fostering a deeper knowledge on many levels.

But in 2019, mom or dad might have to pry the kids away from their tablets first. The ubiquity of technology – and more controlled/programmed children’s schedules with directed supervised activities – has greatly decreased the amount of free time children have, which leaves less time for free play, says Chantal Amyot, senior director, Exhibitions and Visitor Experience at the Canadian Museum of History.

Getting the kids out of the house (or school) is the first step to learning. “Children are learning machines,” says Nora Spinks, CEO of the Vanier Institute of the Family. “They start learning as they take their first breath.”

The way kids acquire, learn and are educated has changed. It’s not just because of technology. Parenting practices and styles have also adapted, according to Spinks, one of two keynote speakers at the Symposium on Family Learning, Inclusion and the Value of Play, which was held at the Canadian Museum of History in December. “Families are often more dispersed,” adds Spinks. “Whether it’s through separation, divorce or very divergent work schedules. Society has also become increasingly mobile, with relatives often living farther away than in the past.”

An expert on play, Peter Gray agrees there’s been a huge decline in children’s freedom over the past several decades throughout North America and much of the world. Gray then moves the debate one step further. “Children now spend much more time in school, confined to home, and in adult-directed school-like activities than in the past,” said Gray, a research professor in Boston College’s Department of Psychology and another keynote speaker at the symposium. “(Kids) have almost no time to play and explore, with other children, away from adults.” He says this has been accompanied by a large decline in creativity. “There is a cause-effect connection between this decline in children’s freedom and negative consequences.”

Unstructured play is where children engage in open-ended play that has no specific learning objective. Unlike structured play, unstructured play is not instructor-led, so parents, teachers, and other adults do not give directions. For example, leave hula-hoops, sidewalk chalk, blocks, sticks, rocks and similar items out for your child and you will be amazed at the creativity that your little one engages in. It is important to note that unstructured play isn’t the same as unsupervised play. Preschoolers especially should always be under the direct supervision of a parent, teacher, or other trusted adult. Through free play, especially outdoor free play, “children acquire cognitive, social, and emotional skills that cannot be taught in school and generally are much more difficult to learn when adults are around to intervene than when children are allowed to play on their own,” Gray says.

Local parents also agreed on the merit of play, and the role of museums in the development of children.

Catherine LaRue-Thebault feels museums cater well to children. She has three children, including three-year-old twins, and still takes advantage of museum free days. “We go (to a museum) every week or two.” She is careful not to intervene, unless they have questions. “The kids find it fun and exciting.”

Kalli Lahtinen often takes her two children (now aged 10 and five) to the Museum of Nature, where her kids always gravitate to interactive displays.  “The exhibits (dinosaurs, space, animals, oceans) are quite lively and interactive. We have gone with Grandma several times over the years and it’s always a hit.”