We all send children to school to be educated and try and ensure that children learn all they are supposed to learn during the time they are in school. In early years, young children learn while playing. But of what value is this learning from an academic context or from a schooling point of view? How can play best support education?
If we look at the primary and secondary years, education in our schools is largely theoretical seldom backed up by any practical experiences. For instance, when children learn about the concepts of work and force in Physics, it usually starts
with learning the definitions, seeing some examples in the form of pictures in a book, then a discussion on the same, and finally questions and answers. Now, let us look at how geometry is introduced. Somewhere in Class 3 or so, children are introduced to a chapter in Mathematics that says a line has two points, a triangle has three points and so on.
When children reach high school, practical elements are introduced. This gives them a slightly more hands-on experience with the concepts, but this is largely limited to Science. Education, hence, largely stays theoretical or goes from theory to mild practice.
Let us visualise a scenario where the opposite works, where learning is largely practical and then theory is introduced. A young child playing with a geometry toy begins to identify shapes early in life. She or he then starts noticing shapes in nature, and begins relating various objects to shapes, like saying a cloud looks like a triangle.
If better geometry toys are given, the child eventually starts discovering shape as a property of all objects and looks at geometry as a study of shapes rather than a branch of Mathematics. When this child finally begins formal studies of geometry in school, she or he has already absorbed many practical aspects of this area and is now very comfortable learning and identifying various geometric shapes by themselves.
We often find that when a seven-year old is given a word problem like 'Mohan has eight marbles and Ayesha has 16 marbles, find the difference', children struggle to identify which operation must be implemented and asks the parent or teacher what they must do - add, subtract, multiply or divide. This is largely because subtraction has been introduced as Maths sum with the help of counting on fingers.
When a child plays with a toy that introduces subtraction effectively, the child immediately grasps the practical meaning of terms like 'take away from', 'what is left behind', 'how much more', and connects them
all with subtraction. The theoretical questions in the book now become a lot simpler
for the child.
When children play with the right learning toys, they are introduced to the practical elements that they need.
Practical to theory
When education becomes practical to theory, it becomes more meaningful for the child. Practical to theory is how we learn to cook, how we learn to play a sport, how we learn to play an instrument. Why then do we choose to follow a route that reduces learning for academic learning? Playing with the right toys can change the direction of learning and make it enjoyable.
Even more importantly, playing with the right toys encourages children to be inventive and perseverant. If they don't get it right, they will keep trying till they get it done. Toys are the most patient teachers and give children infinite opportunities to practice with them over and over again. They are important tools of learning for children and help them build confidence.
Not only do toys create independent learners, they complement the education system as well. As Martin Luther King, Jr once said, "The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character - that is the goal of true education."