Lessons Learned From Playground Pedagogy

by Joseph S. Renzulli
Director of the University of Connecticut’s Neag Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development

Small children want to learn to the degree that they are unable to
distinguish learning from fun. They keep this attitude until we
adults convince them that learning is not fun.
~Glenn Doman

Sometimes, the most important lessons about learning are right before our eyes, but because they are not considered “real school,” we tend to overlook them in favor of the highly organized and prescriptive pedagogy that characterizes formal learning. Observe a group of young people at play or those engaged in an extracurricular activity. The first thing we note is that young people group themselves across age lines according to their interests. Some kids are throwing a ball through a hoop while others are swinging a bat at a much smaller ball. Some youngsters with an interest in the written word are gathered around a table doing what needs to be done to get out the school newspaper or yearbook, while others are building scenery and working on the light and sound systems for a forthcoming drama production. And even within groups, natural divisions of labor take place so that someone ends up pitching the ball, while other develop their skills as infielders or outfielders. In the school newspaper group, there are writers of many genres, layout and production specialists, and others who are interested in management, marketing, and desktop publishing.

What is another characteristic of playground pedagogy?
A second characteristic of what I call playground pedagogy is that everything is directed toward the production of a specific product or a real and present goal that is highly relevant for the entire group. Compare this type of learning with the often distant and ambiguous goals that typify classrooms dominated by lesson plans, prescribed standards, and preparation for yet another test. I am not arguing against the important role of formal learning situations. However, these prescribed and presented learning experiences need to be counterbalanced with learning that is based on student interests and a pedagogy that makes whatever students are doing instantaneously relevant to their own interests, motivation, and desire to produce something that is important to them!

But there is a third characteristic of playground pedagogy that should be infused into at least some of our formal learning situations if we are to improve the efficiency of learning. This characteristic, pure and simple, is enjoyment! Whenever people ask me to define what I mean by enrichment or high end learning, I always answer with what I call the three E’—enjoyment, engagement, and enthusiasm. And enjoyment leads the list. While one would be naive to argue that all learning (or our jobs and work) can always be enjoyable, efficiency in school or the workplace is always heightened when students or adults enjoy what they are doing.

A couple of months ago I visited with a group of elementary grade children who were enrolled in an enrichment cluster that designs, “manufactures,” and markets colorful buttons. An enrichment cluster is an across grade level group that comes together during specially designated time blocks because of common interests an a willingness to work together for the express purpose of producing a product or service. The clusters are modeled after real world enterprises such as businesses, advocacy groups, research institutes, literary societies, or artistic production companies. There are no lesson plans or lists of standards to follow, but many types of powerful learning take place within the context of producing the product or developing the service. All activity is directed toward having an impact on an intended audience. Students seek out information and resources on a need-to-know basis, and they use the methods of practicing professionals, even if their activities are on a more junior level than adult professionals. The teacher serves as a guide-on-the-side rather than an instructor—gently helping students to escalate their work to as high a level as possible for their age and maturity levels.

“The Creative Button Boutique”
The day I visited the “Creative Button Boutique” the room was a beehive of activity. Divisions of labor were readily apparent—some students were experimenting with colors, designs, and digital photography while others were calculating the sale price of buttons based on the costs of materials. Still others were preparing advertisements by designing posters and rehearsing oral presentations for the school’s public address and closed circuit television system. The business committee was searching for information on the Internet about quality control and there was talk of a web site for their company and the possibility of having a booth at a forthcoming town fair. “Will Mr. Sampson (the technology teacher) help us set up a web site?” “Do you have to pay for a web site?” “Who do we need to contact to get a booth at the town fair?” “How can we find out if they charge for booths?” “Should we write a letter to the Chamber of Commerce?” The most obvious thing I observed was that everyone was having fun! The excitement and enthusiasm were contagious because the students were all working on problems that were real to them; they were eager to do whatever was necessary to make their products creative and their business a success. The atmosphere reminded me of the kinds of enjoyment and engagement that can be observed almost every day on the playground! And yet, these young people were engaged in very meaningful learning that represents a practical blend of cognitive, affective, and motivational growth.

As the time period for the enrichment cluster drew to a close, the manager of the Creative Button Boutique decided to give me a gift of one of their products. He presented me with a choice of several buttons, and made it clear that they could only afford to give me one button. At that moment I saw a glow in the young man’s eyes that suddenly reminded me of what learning was all about—competence, pride, satisfaction, achievement, and most of all enjoyment. All of the goals of schooling are more easily and effectively accomplished when young people are doing in “real school” what they do so easily and naturally on the playground.