Plato and Play

As a classical educator and consultant to classical schools for about twenty years now, I have often been amused and sometimes gratified by the ways scientific research rediscovers what classical educators have known (or at least believed) for centuries. For example, “studies now show” that the study of Latin will help you with your English vocabulary and verbal section of the SAT or GRE (classics students do better on the GRE verbal section than English students). “Research also shows” that multimodal instruction (using the pathways of the eye, ear, and body) enhance learning and memory. The classical pedagogy for younger students that involves chanting, singing, hand and body motions, all while viewing charts, song lyrics, or diagrams turns out to be…multimodal. Similar things could be said about Socratic teaching (collaborative learning) and having students actually teach other students (docendo discimus—by teaching we learn).

Most recently, “research now shows” that play actually enhances the way young students learn (NPR piece: Scientists Say Child’s Play Helps Build a Better Brain). Sergio Pellis from the University of Lethbridge in Alberta says, “The experience of play changes the connections of the neurons at the front end of your brain…and without play experience those neurons aren’t changed.”

I quote directly from the NPR piece:

“Whether it’s rough-and-tumble play or two kids deciding to build a sand castle together, the kids themselves have to negotiate, well, what are we going to do in this game? What are the rules we are going to follow?” Pellis says. The brain builds new circuits in the prefrontal cortex to help it navigate these complex social interactions, he says.

Another scholar and researcher from Cambridge advocates (along with over one hundred additional English experts) that formal schooling should delayed from age four to seven. David Whitebread of Cambridge writes:

In England children now start formal schooling, and the formal teaching of literacy and numeracy at the age of four. A recent letter signed by around 130 early childhood education experts, including myself, published in the Daily Telegraph  (11 Sept 2013) advocated an extension of informal, play-based pre-school provision and a delay to the start of formal ‘schooling’ in England from the current effective start until the age of seven (in line with a number of other European countries who currently have higher levels of academic achievement and child well-being).

Whitebread stresses that this conclusion is based on numerous studies:

There are several strands of evidence which all point towards the importance of play in young children’s development, and the value of an extended period of playful learning before the start of formal schooling. These arise from anthropological, psychological, neuroscientific, and educational studies.

He grounds these conclusion in neuroscientific, psychological studies:

Neuroscientific studies have shown that playful activity leads to synaptic growth, particularly in the frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for all the uniquely human higher mental functions.

I am gladdened and gratified (and yes, slightly amused) by these reports. Often scientific study confirms the conventional wisdom gained by accrued human experience. We humans have been working at training up our young for a while now, and we have generally considered it a very important enterprise. So play is a critical part of the education of young children—neuroscience apparently confirms this. But it is worth pausing and asking–who said this first? Classical educators (and to be fair, scores of progressive educators) have acknowledged play as a key to the learning of young children. Children reenact on the playground what they learn in the classroom. Teach the Civil War (or the Peloponnesian War) to 6th grade boys, and what do you get at recess? How many of us have found our children “playing school or homechool” in the back yard on a summer day?

The Greeks would have the boys wrestle regularly outside as part of their education (I will pass over the fact that they did this in the nude). They wrestled outside of class, and no doubt they wrestled in class with some noteworthy clarity (with tunics on). They wrestled outside hand to hand, then inside head to head. Ask any third-grade teacher: Are students better prepared for a math lesson before or after recess? Recess remains in our schools (and doesn’t even need such a name in our homeschools) 2,500 years after the Greeks integrated it into their curriculum.

So who said it first? It was likely Plato who first recognized the educational value of play. In Book VII of Plato’s Republic, Socrates suggests that play is where education should begin: “Don’t use force in training the children in the studies, but rather play. In that way you can better discern what each is naturally directed towards” (537a).

In the same context, Socrates goes on to say that forced or compulsory learning is fleeting:

“Bodily exercise, when compulsory, does no harm to the body; but knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind” (536e).

We are very familiar with the cram-pass-forget cycle of American education in which we “learned” material for a test only to forget it a day or two afterwards. Plato says that such learning is a farce that would obtain “no hold on the mind.” Play, however, is the natural way young children learn what they want to truly embody and the knowledge they want to possess. To the Greeks, there is a linguistic relationship here too. The Greek word pazein (to play) is related to the word for child, pais. It is preserved in a distant way in our phrase “child’s play.” There is a kind of play innate to a child that makes it a play proper to a child, even part of what it means to be a child. A child plays. A child learns as he plays. Much of his learning, from one perspective, is child’s play.

Can this insight be distorted? Yes it can, and often is. If we extend this insight about how children learn too far, we have children deciding at every juncture what and when to study, and we adults will ask nothing of them—for that would be “force and compulsion.” We must not forget that the purpose of play is to learn how to live in the drama of a real life, when sticks will be exchanged for swords and the puddle for a rolling sea. The little girl who is a fairy will one day be running a household or a hotel.

This means that play is preparation and that play is in fact a serious matter. While children must be given a wide swath of freedom (recess should have as few rules as possible, and I think sticks must be legal), they also must be directed and they must be taught. In other words, the classroom and the playground work hand in hand. The teacher teaches; the students run outside, their heads full of Latin words, lines of poetry, tales of ships, battles, and heroic feats of all kinds; the play backs the lessons of the classroom in unpredictable, creative, delightful ways. They learn again, as only a child at play can.

Can play be imported into the classroom? Yes, in wise ways appropriate to the classroom—even as teaching can be taken outside, in wise ways. We might say, to change vocabulary, that there is way of weaving together informal and formal ways of learning. The wise teacher will know how to use this to the best advantage, not permitting her classroom to become a playground, nor the playground a classroom.

When you look at a child to you see a pais, made to play (pazein)? To switch to Latin, when you see children, do you see liberi—the free ones? Do we teach them as free spirits? Could we benefit from the mind-set of the Romans, who called their school for young children a ludus—also their word for child’s play?

In what ways do you incorporate play into your homeschool? How does play contribute to the notion of scholé? How do you find a good balance between too much play and too little? Share your stories, experience, or questions, and join the conversation below!

ChrisHeadshotBW400x400Dr. Christopher Perrin is an author, consultant, and speaker who specializes in classical education and is committed to the national renewal of the liberal arts tradition. He co-founded and serves full time as the CEO/publisher at Classical Academic Press, a classical education curriculum, media, and consulting company. Christopher serves as a consultant to charter, public, private, and Christian schools across the country. He is the board vice president of the Society for Classical Learning and the director of the Alcuin Fellowship of classical educators. He has published numerous articles and lectures that are widely used throughout the United States and the English-speaking world.

Christopher received his BA in history from the University of South Carolina and his MDiv and PhD in apologetics from Westminster Theological Seminary. He was also a special student in literature at St. Johns College in Annapolis. He has taught at Messiah College and Chesapeake Theological Seminary, and served as the founding headmaster of a classical school in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, for ten years. He is the author of the books An Introduction to Classical Education: A Guide for Parents, The Greek Alphabet Code Cracker, Greek for Children, and coauthor of the Latin for Children series published by Classical Academic Press. Christopher has a passion for classical education and is a lover of goodness, truth, and beauty wherever it is found.