The Future of Education is Play

There’s a lot of questioning now about “The Future of Education”.  But the answer is simple: The Future of Education is Play.

Images of children playing in natural environments

You can right click on this collage and select “view image” to see a larger version.

Image sources: let the children play; Irresistible Ideas For Play Based Learning;
Precious Childhood; Flights of Whimsy

I get a lot of emails from people all around the world about Child’s Play Music.  But this one touched a chord with me, because it’s about the Future of Play-Based Learning.  And to me that means it’s about the Future of Education, period.

It’s from Malissa Carey, a 20 year old student from Kansas, who is now studying at Concordia University.  Let me quote from the email and you’ll see why it means so much to me.

My name is Malissa Carey. I am from Princeton, Kansas but I attend school at Concordia University in Seward, Nebraska. I stumbled upon your website and have fallen in LOVE with your program. I am double majoring in Early Childhood and Special Education and will continue to get my Masters in Music Therapy and hopefully a Doctorate.  I would love to get to experience one of your classes but I don’t think that will ever get to happen, at least not in the near future.

I just wanted to tell you how much I appreciate what you are doing and how much I want to base my future classroom like what you have! I am so very passionate about children’s learning through play. In a time where most teachers are worried about teaching to the test and hitting standards it’s refreshing to be able to just experience play and something that God intended us to do… to just live.

Anyway, now that I have ranted and raved about how much I love what you’re doing I just want to simply say, THANK YOU!  Sincerely, Malissa Carey.

Now, it’s lovely that Malissa likes Child’s Play Music so much – I’m honoured and, indeed, humbled.  But what struck me most was Malissa’s passion for play-based learning.

I am so very passionate about children’s learning through play … it’s refreshing to be able to just experience play and something that God intended us to do… to just live.

I know only too well that play-based learning is under serious threat in the US (and to a lesser extent here in Australia too). As Malissa says, we are living “in a time where most teachers are worried about teaching to the test and hitting standards”.

Children weaving a string spider web

This lovely structure took many children to create. It’s not just beautiful – it’s fantastically educational as the children discover just how complex and intricate a real spider web is.

Image source: Irresistible Ideas for Play Based Learning

And that is a tragedy.  When play goes, learning goes. We have over 100 years of solid research that shows that the natural way for young children to learn is through play [PDF, 573KB].    When worksheets, deskwork and standardised testing replace play we are harming children; when we cut or eliminate recess we are harming children; when we give them ever-increasing quantities of homework we are harming children – and the research cited above shows that the harm can be life-long.

And as Marc Armitage says Play MUST happen BEFORE learning can occur“.

Not “Play is something that can add to the ‘real’ learning that happens in chairs and desks in the classroom”.

Not “Play is a way for children to let off steam between the ‘real’ learning that happens from worksheets and sorting trays”.

Young child drilling with real hand drill

Young children need to learn about safe tool use – and the only way they can do that is through using REAL tools. A pretend plastic drill teaches nothing about risk or safe tool use.

Image source: Precious Childhood

Play MUST happen BEFORE learning can occur.

Because play IS the real learning.  And play – real play – is freely chosen and child-led.  It is NOT imposed by adults.  Adults can support play, they can provide a rich environment for play, they can extend play, they can model ways of playing, but the minute they impose play it stops being PLAY – and it becomes WORK.

Children Building Huge Block Tower

These children put enormous thought into building this tower and making sure it was strong and stable enough to be climbed on. Given the opportunity for free play and calculated risks children are natural risk-assessors. Fortunately they have an educator who supports and encourages them in this sort of challenging play.

Image source: Flights of Whimsy

That’s why my Child’s Play Music programs focus on child-led play. I give children almost complete freedom to play with my instruments as they like.  I provide only the most minimal guidance as to how to play the instruments – just enough to get them started.  And then I stand back and let the children explore the instruments.

Children playing my drums. FUN = LEARNING!

I deliberately group my drums like this to encourage shared play and learning through modelling. You can see one child only has one drumstick; a few moments later he was using two like the other children.

And they always amaze me.  They come up with ways of playing them I would never have thought of.  And because I don’t teach them how to play the instruments they teach themselves – because free play is the greatest teaching method for young children.

Sharing a metallophone - I love this image!

Note how the girl on the right is observing – then a few seconds later the roles were reversed, and then they played together – a natural duet without any teaching necessary.

My program is definitely play-focused and child-led, but there’s also room for slightly more structured music activities – so long as you keep one thing in mind: FREE PLAY MUST ALWAYS COME FIRST! (Sorry about the ALL CAPS, but it really is that important!)

2 children playing a bass thongophone - how much fun is this?!

At first most young children will just play on one note – but very soon they experiment with the whole scale

In my own programs I always begin with totally free, unstructured, child-led play – but that doesn’t mean you can’t scaffold their play by introducing new ideas and techniques.  You don’t even have to think of it as ‘teaching’; merely modelling a different playing technique can be more than enough to spark children’s ideas.

Girls playing drums - with rock & roll attitude!

This is typical of how most young children first play drums – both sticks hitting together on one drum only

I often play drums with very young children (say 2-5) and their natural tendency is to whack with the two drumsticks as hard as they can, hitting together with both sticks on one drum. Because it’s FUN!  But when I play a simple rhythm with alternating sticks or simple patterns of alternating drums the children pick up on it immediately and make it their own.

Me modelling drumming techniques to 2 children

Note how the boy in the red shirt has immediately picked up on what I’ve modelled.

They may not play exactly what I play, but they take the idea and experiment with it in their own way.  And that is the power of play too – because play is the way that children learn, they will take anything and everything they see and hear and experience and make it their own.

I don’t think of this as ‘teaching’ because I’m not saying “hey, if you hit this drum twice then that drum once, and then pause, and then repeat that pattern we can all play Queen’s ‘We Will Rock You!”  I could do it, but then it wouldn’t be play, it would be teaching.  I might model it, but my moment of joy comes when the child spontaneously discovers the ‘We Will Rock You” rhythm for themselves – and they do, through play, and the look of pride on their face says it all.

Enough about what I do – here’s some more of what Malissa said in a later email:

I am very interested in starting something that has the ability to change minds on how people think about children and their learning. Being able to change the hearts and minds of children and what people think of education is actually one of my passions in being on this earth.

I know I am only 20 but there are a lot of things I would really like to accomplish in this world. 🙂 I care so much about children and how they are learning and what is going on in their worlds.

I want to make a bigger difference … Personally, I cannot pinpoint a specific area that I want to teach because I love all areas of education and wish I could teach everything, but I am open to wherever God wants to lead me, and I feel that open to God’s calling is the best way to be.

Now that is inspiring! “Being able to change the hearts and minds of children and what people think of education is actually one of my passions in being on this earth … I care so much about children and how they are learning and what is going on in their worlds. I want to make a bigger difference”.

A cardboard box can be anything!

Some images from Malissa’s most recent play project – a cardboard box, some dress-ups, and these children are having fun! And that means they are LEARNING! Malissa is making “a bigger difference”!

A tutu, a lei - and a drum you can wear on your head!

This child wore this drum on his head so all his friends could play it while he was wearing it – now THAT is creative play! Would you have thought of that? I know I wouldn’t! But this child did through free play!

A cardboard box can be anything - even a shop!

The shop is now open – would you like to buy some stickers?

Image credits: Malissa Carey

Malissa, you may be only 20, but it’s people like you – young people with passion and fire and determination – who will be changing the world. You and your peers are the next generation of educators.  It’s you and others like you who can make sure that play is where it ought to be: at the centre, the core, the living heart of education.

And if you can do it and keep that fire and passion then it’s not just education that will be improved: it’s the lives of the children you will educate.  You CAN make a difference and the difference is vital.  Because the future of education is not worksheets, more deskwork, less recess, extra homework and standardised testing:

The Future of Education is Play.

children playing in a creek with sticks - safe, fun and educational!

This is REAL play! Children will learn far more – FAR MORE – in the natural environment than sitting in a desk. I always say there is nothing you can do inside that you can’t do outside, but there are thousands of things you can ONLY learn by being outside in the real world.

Image source: let the children play

39 thoughts on “The Future of Education is Play

  1. Fantastic post Alec, and if makes others start to either feel as passionately as Malissa or to reawaken theri pride in their role in young childrens lives, so much the better. Thanks for writing such an amazing post, Kierna

      • Well, of course I did – and if you are really worried about a minor spelling error I can edit it for you 🙂

        Thanks for the positive feedback – it’s been so long since I last blogged that I had lost confidence. I’ve got so many drafts, so many posts I’ve just started and then abandoned. I felt they had merit, but then I got bogged down. I would come back to them and go “No, no, no, this isn’t what I meant! I don’t think they are worth fixing!”

        Maybe – just maybe – I was wrong and they are worth going on with. Some time away from them, a fresh eye, some new perspective and perhaps I can fix them. Because I DO think I have stuff worth saying but my perfectionism gets in the way. I’ll never be a Teacher Tom, with a new post every day, but 3 months between blog posts is taking minimalism to ridiculous heights!

        Thanks again!

  2. This is a great post, it is so true and so important that we begin to see how much is learned through play. It really is not a past time but the way humans learn. Thank you for a wonderful blog.

    • Thank you, Kristi – I really appreciate your support. Incidentally, while in this post I’m mainly talking about play in early childhood education, I honestly believe that play is the best way for all people, of whatever age, to learn. Play triggers powerful brain chemicals that make learning both easier and more sustained.

      I’m not saying adults can’t learn other ways too (I love learning from books, for instance) but when I want to consolidate that learning I do it through play. When I’m learning a new jazz progression I do it from sheet music – but to make it stick I have to play!

  3. I love, love, love this post, Alec! There is so much to be learned through play, things that can not be “taught” by a teacher, but must be “experienced” by the learner instead. I wish every bureaucrat making decisions on educational policy (especially here in the US) could read this post. Sometimes I wonder what would happen if, instead of “pushing down the curriculum” to our younger learners, if we “pushed up play” to elementary children. What if grade school kids (grades K-5 for example) had part of their day for free play and exploration? My guess is we would foster many more inventors and independent thinkers, just for starters!

    Thanks for sharing your correspondence to Malissa. It makes me hopeful that we are getting the word out and headed in the right direction in our attitudes towards play based learning! Her enthusiasm is refreshing!

    • Yes, yes, yes! Play needs to be pushed up – and not just to K-5, but to every part of the education system. Right up to post-doc! And beyond! Imagine if our politicians and bureaucrats spent part of their days in play – what might come of that?

      It is happening – Google employees get 20% of their time for play projects. They don’t have to justify them, they don’t even have to make a profit from them – but the profits come, because play works!

      I look at my own business – the profits I make don’t come because I’ve got a brilliant business mind; they come because I play with ideas, I play with new ways to present my ideas, I play with new ways to engage my students, I play with new ways to make instruments, I play with new ways to network with my peers.

      Many of my play ideas fail – and that doesn’t bother me in the slightest. Because the failures gives me new ideas for better ways to play, better ways to make it work. When I stop playing you can nail the lid down, because if I’m not actually dead I might as well be. You Americans came up with a fabulous phrase: “the pursuit of happiness”. Play is what makes me happy 🙂 The rest is work.

      • Thank you for reading it. It was a pleasure to share my passion. It’s just saddening sometimes when I’m over here in America wanting to get out and do my own thing but I’m stuck by the system. I’m hoping to get my ideas out there and help to be an advocate for Early Childhood Education here and across the world. Hopefully one day, they might listen to some of us and realize that what they are requiring us to do isn’t the right thing.

  4. I love contagious passion, and both you and Malissa have it. If people could only put themselves back in their own childish shoes, and realise that we only really learn when we’re interested and self-motivated.

    Perhaps a more playful attitude to your blogging will help you be less perfectionist, Alec. Sometimes you just have to invite comments and hit PUBLISH. In the whole scheme of things online, your posts are head and shoulders above the crowd in terms of presentation and content, so I don’t think there’s a huge risk of failure happening here! ;D

    • Thanks – and you are so right about my perfectionism. I will try to take it to heart, and yes, I do have another post close to be ready to publish. It will be very different but I hope it gets a response – this post certainly has!

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    • Thanks Lesley. Without that listening I would never have got round to the telling. I think I need to listen more. Actually, quite a few people have told me that – it’s strange I find writing so daunting since most people who know me will tell you that getting me to stop talking is a major achievement LOL.

    • Thanks Donna – and thanks also for that quote, because as I know you know I “borrowed” it directly from your own blog post. I SO regret that Marc didn’t get to Perth this time. If he doesn’t make it to Perth on his next visit I afraid I’m going to have to get my Italian relatives to make you all an offer you can’t refuse. Capisce? LOL

  6. Ritual grew up in sacred play; poetry was born in play and nourished on play; music and dancing were pure play…. We have to conclude, therefore, that civilization, in its earliest phases, played. It does not come from play…it arises in and as play, and never leaves it.
    Johan Huizing
    Dutch historian

    Alex, thanks for your blog post. As foundation stage teacher, I retired after largely ignoring those ”teach to test” voices growing ever louder. I was trained in the 70s when play was central to learning without question. Too much teachers play time is spent ticking boxes for people who just don’t ‘get it’.

    Educators like you give me hope and make me happy.

    • Sue – that is a fantastic quote – I may have to steal it for a future post 🙂

      I know so many teachers and early educators – excellent ones – leaving for the same or related reasons. In child care in Australia (which is where I came from – I have a degree in child care and child development) educators are leaving so fast they can’t train new ones fast enough to keep up with the resignations.

      Part of that (a big part) is the appallingly low pay. But the research shows that a close second reason is the ever-increasing demands for “ticking the boxes”. Good educators want to educate – they want to BE with the children providing exciting challenging play environments and scaffolding the children’s learning. Instead they find that they spend most of their time completing pointless documentation, ticking boxes, filling out forms – in short, the point of the profession is now often seen as the production of the evidence of learning (and most of that evidence is entirely spurious), rather than the learning itself.

      For good educators this is soul-destroying. They KNOW how to create great learning environments and support children’s learning. But they are not being allowed to implement those programs because to do so means that they don’t have the time to “tick the boxes” – and they know that those “ticked boxes” are worse than meaningless – but ticking the boxes” has become compulsory.

      Now I’m not arguing for a total rejection of documentation. But documentation is only useful when it is real and accurate and provides useful information that allows an educator to provide a better program that better serves the needs of the children being educated. 90% of the documentation I see should never have been collected and should be immediately consigned to the recycling bin.

      Let me give you one example: small children suffer minor injuries every day. A child falls over and suffers a minor scrape to the knee, for example. All that is really necessary is that the child is comforted, the scrape is cleaned, and possibly a band aid applied. Total time should be 2 to 3 minutes, tops. And in a child care setting such minor injuries happen many times every day.

      Under our current regulatory system for each and every one of those injuries the caregiver must fill in a form (by hand) that lists:

      1. the child’s name
      2. Date of birth
      3. Current age of the child
      4. The room or group the child belongs in
      5.Circumstances leading to the incident (In full written detail)
      6. Any product or structures involved (In full written detail)
      7. The location the incident occurred (In full written detail)
      8. The names of any witnesses to the incident
      9. The time of the incident
      10. The date of the incident
      11. the signature of the witness
      12 the date of the completion of the form [although you are instructed to fill in the form as soon as possible you have up to 24 hours to complete the form; failure to complete the form in a timely manner can result in large fines]
      13. The nature of the injury sustained (their are 11 options listed, including “Other (please specify). [I can’t help noticing that there are two spelling mistakes in the options!!!!]
      14. Indicate the location of the injury to the child on a drawing provided on the form.
      15. Provide full written details of action taken, including first aid and/or administration of any medication.
      16. Were medical personnel contacted: Yes/No
      17. If yes, provide full written details
      18. Name of person completing this record
      19. Signature of person completing this record
      20. Time record was made
      21. Date record was made
      22. Notification of parent/guardian – Time and Date
      23. Notification of director/coordinator – Time and Date
      24. Notification of Regulatory Authority (if applicable) – Time and Date
      25. Parental Acknowledgement (Name and signature and date)
      26. Additional notes/follow up

      Filling in that form accurately would take me about 15 to 20 minutes, I estimate. For a scraped knee!!!!! And on a bad day an educator might have to fill in 10 or more of these injury forms.

      Further, the form must be kept, and stored ‘securely and confidentially” until the child is 25 years old!!!!!!

      And that is just one tiny example of the sort of (forgive my language) utter bullshit that educators are dealing with all day, every day, when what they should really be doing is educating children!

      Now what I believe should really happen in such a circumstance is simple: the child is comforted, the scrape is cleaned, and possibly a band aid applied. A brief note to that effect should be recorded in a day book: “Billy – scraped knee – scrape cleaned – bandaid applied. Signed Joe Bloggs” and when the parent arrives to collect the child the caregiver should say “Billy skinned his knee again!”

      And that should be it. What more is necessary? Now if Billy has broken his arm, or suffered concussion, or any major accident that requires medical treatment then of course a more formal procedure must be in place, and the current form seems perfectly adequate and appropriate. But for skinned knees or a minor bruise, or a scratch the current system is insane!

  7. Nice posted Alec and I too think it’s nice to see you back.

    Perth? I got to Perth in August … OK so it was Perth in Tasmania, but Perth it was!

    Next year … promise.

    • Thanks – and I’ll hold you to that. I’ve never been to Perth in Tazzie. I’ve been to Perth in Scotland, but since at the time I was 18 months old I can’t say I remember it well – or at all!

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  10. Awesome post!

    My degree is in grades 1-5. My first job offer was in Kindergarten. I was petrified and felt like I was drowning…..but I eventually loved it and rocked it out. (that was last school year). 2 weeks into this school year (after my Kindergarten classroom was fully decorated and organized, after I’d met my Kindergarten students and contacted their parents to say hello, and after 3 months (summer ‘vacation’) of research about Kindergarten) I was moved into Pre-K in a totally different school because my school didn’t have enough Kindergarten students.

    I’m lost. I don’t understand the need for play all day. I don’t know how to teach students anything. I don’t know how to accomplish the goals I want accomplished without sitting and teaching. I’d love as many ideas as you can muster. I found out through Pinterest, along with more Pre-K ideas I’ll be trying ASAP! Please help! I have a drowning sensation again and I’m a perfectionist and would love to do great. 🙂

    • Ariel, the best advice I can give you is to check out some of the great play-based blogs. They will help you get a handle on what play does for young children, why it is so valuable and why it’s THE best way for Pre-K children to learn.

      Pre-K is very different to the teaching you’ve been doing, so I quite understand your concerns. But the great thing is that with Pre-K you don’t teach by teaching – the children learn by doing through play. Your job isn’t to teach, per se: it’s to provide the environment in which the children will learn for themselves. It’s all about setting up an environment that is stimulating and which offers children constant opportunities for hands-on exploration.

      So here are some must-read blogs by people with huge experience in providing stimulating programs:

      Teacher Tom
      Jennifer at let the children play
      Donna and Sherry at Irresistible Ideas for Play Based learning
      Lesley at Takoma Park Cooperative Nursery School
      Karen Green at Flights of Whimsy
      Ayn Colsh at Little Illuminations
      Niki Buchan at Precious Childhood
      Kierna Corr at Learning for Life
      Aunt Annie at Aunt Annie’s Childcare
      Denita Dinger at Play Counts
      Juliet at I’m a teacher, get me OUTSIDE here!
      Jeff at Explorations Early Learning, LLC
      Christie at Childhood 101

      Now this is not an exclusive list – there are hundreds of great early childhood bloggers out there (and thousands of crappy ones!). And the bloggers in this list are very varied – they all have their own take and some of them probably would be very surprised to find themselves in the company of others on this list – but they are all worth reading, they all have great ideas, and they are all HUGELY experienced in working with very young children in play-based programs.

      Also they are all on Facebook and I can’t stress enough how wonderful Facebook can be for finding up-to-the-minute ideas. Their blogs give you depth; their Facebook Pages give you instant ideas and feedback. Got a question, or a problem you need help with NOW? Ask on the Facebook Pages and you will be overwhelmed with help and ideas (first port of call for this is definitely Irresistible Ideas For Play Based Learning Just ask your question and Donna and Sherry will post it up and you will have dozens of responses from their fans within minutes)

      I hope this helps you – and enjoy your new career, because I honestly reckon you are going to love working in Pre-K. It’s the most wonderful age to work with, with the added bonus that YOU get to play too!

  11. I stole chunks of this and reposted on my blog – linked to here of course. Thank you SO MUCH for putting this into such succinct words, and for the research links as well.

    • I’m glad you liked my material, and I’m happy for you to repost it in the way you have.

      I appreciate it that you’ve made the links redirect to my post – thanks, not everyone is so generous. Could I ask a small favour? Could you add a specific link to my blog that gives the name of my blog and the post? Just a link that says something like “Source: Child’s Play Music – The Future of Education is Play”. I would really appreciate it! Alec.

    • Thanks! But the photos are mainly from my fantastic blogging buddies’ blogs, so please visit their blogs to see the awesome stuff they do! You can just click on a photo or the link below the photo and – SHAZAM! Blogging heaven!

      But what “little scrolling device” are you referring to? I’ve got nothing special on this blog by way of widgets, and I don’t have any “scrolling device” that I’m aware of. When I read this post I can only scroll the usual ways – with my mousewheel or with the sidebars. Somebody else asked me about this special scrolling device too – but I don’t know what it means! Can you tell me more?

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  13. Apart from all the other great aspects of this post, I think it’s important to highlight how a student from halfway around the world is inspiring you and others because she has been inspired by you. Learning and inspiration can be a cyclical thing as well as ongoing. I think it’s cool that Malissa’s message is borne from an admiration for your work, but that otself is gaining admiration from you and the rest of us.

    I tell you what, if Malissa doesn’t make it to work with you Alec then I’ll happily have her join me.

    • Thanks Greg. You’ve hit the nail on the head – “Learning and inspiration can be a cyclical thing as well as ongoing.”

      That cycle is exactly what made me write this post – I inspired Malissa, she inspired me. And from the comments I’ve had it looks like this post has inspired other people. And hopefully, that cycle of inspiration will keep rolling on. Maybe right now someone is writing a post inspired by this one. And that will inspire someone else and …

      • I would love to join you both! I’m looking to get my ideas and my name out wherever I can. One of my professors at Concordia University saw this blog and told me I should be an advocate for Early Childhood Education all around the world. My passion is Africa, but I’m willing to start wherever the Lord leads me 🙂

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  15. Very well stated!! What a great post. Thank you for sharing at Sharing Saturday!! I hope you will join us again!
    FYI–My virus software did not want me to visit your blog. Don’t know why.

    • Thank you – I’m glad you liked it. That’s very worrying about your virus software – this is a safe site, and it’s hosted on which is generally considered the most secure of all the blogging platforms. I had a recent problem on Facebook of a similar nature – people clicking on links to my posts were getting warnings from Facebook about my site! I really can’t think what it can be. I’ve had my site thoroughly checked, including by Google, and there is no malware on my site and obviously the material on the my site is not offensive or dangerous.

      I did have it suggested to me on the WordPress forum that someone might have deliberately targeted my site (for reasons unknown) and have maliciously reported me to Google and/or Facebook. I can’t think who would do such a thing or why – it’s not like my material is controversial, and I’m not such a big business that my competitors would do something like that, I’m sure.

      All I can do is hope it goes away. Thanks for the heads-up! Alec.

  16. Very exciting to read a blog on play as education, specifically music. This is the direction I have been going with my teaching and now with my Kids. I think music is super important and have been looking for ways to do more.
    On a side note, I am also a Concordia graduate, but Concordia TX…

  17. Rebeka, I agree – music is super important. And so is play. Putting them together is a no-brainer IMO. I’m so glad that there are other people out there besides myself who feel the same way, so thanks for your comment!

    BTW if you are passionate about music and play I strongly recommend you check out the work of Julie Wylie from New Zealand. She has a website at and her facebook page is at She is REALLY respected in the music/play/education field and is also a presenter at major conferences and writes solid academic articles as well.

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