Student Engagement

Creative Play and Scientific Inquiry, Part 1: Preparing Kids for More Than Just a Test

March 12, 2008

Creative play on the part of young children may be far more valuable than anyone has realized. I caught a fascinating story about this issue on NPR last week.

The critical discovery, according to the report, is that "social pretend play is an excellent means for exercising and building up the executive functions of working memory (children must hold their own role and those of others in mind), inhibitory control (children must inhibit acting out of character), and cognitive flexibility (children must flexibly adjust to unexpected twists and turns in the evolving plot). But social pretend play doesn't have much value if children are free to abandon a play scenario after a few moments or are not held accountable for staying within their chosen role.

"Adults need to facilitate any play -- adults who are trained in observing children and in understanding how play contributes to their mastery of concepts and skills," the NPR report concludes.

These comments led me to an epiphany: In the past decade, we have moved toward standardized tests for kindergartners and a greater amount of structured instruction for young students. The pressure on teachers, in many cases, forces us to reduce the amount of time we make available for creative play. I believe the researchers are suggesting that this creative play results in an increase in student self-regulation. It seems to me that the more we pile on test preparation and scripted curriculum, the less ability students will have to focus and to exercise self-control. They will also exhibit less curiosity.

As a science teacher, I see parallels in the work we do with older students. I have felt for a long time that students are far more motivated and engaged when we give them the opportunity to develop their own investigations, to engage in real inquiry into questions they care about. But the emphasis recently has been on getting them to memorize ever longer lists of science facts so they can answer multiple-choice questions.

When I was working with a fourth-grade class last year, I asked them to come up with possible experiments we could do to find out what affected the growth of a plant. Some were able to make suggestions, but quite a few were at a loss. They needed me to tell them exactly what I wanted. They were OK at answering simple questions, but when I said, "Come up with your own question to investigate," they looked at me as if I had asked them to fly. I think this confusion occurred because they had not experienced this sort of challenge before. They are accustomed to scripted curriculum, worksheets, and answering questions based on readings.

We are also experiencing a significant increase in the dropout rate -- more than 50 percent in some areas, especially among the students most targeted by scripted curriculum and test preparation: African American and Latino students in impoverished communities. Dropping out might be the ultimate failure of self-regulation, the ultimate alienation from school and education as a whole.

I hope we are able to delve into the dropout rate more deeply to find out the reasons for it. My fear is that our emphasis on test preparation has debased our whole educational enterprise. I have experienced this outcome firsthand when students challenge a teacher on why they should learn something. The standard response has become, "Because it is on the test." This is circular reasoning, and students know it. We have moved away from the real reasons to learn, which are that learning satisfies our curiosity and allows us to do worthwhile and creative things.

Please share your thoughts, and read part two of this entry.

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  • Creativity
  • K-2 Primary

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