Summer conjures all sorts of images.
Long, languid days giving way to warm nights with windows wide open. Smoky backyard barbecues with friends. Weekends sprawled out on the beach with a favorite book or casting a line in a river. Piling into the car for a road trip to see the sights.
For many, summer epitomizes the good life: quality time spent with the people you care most about. If you’re one of the lucky ones, your employer helps. Summer flex-time policies or special work hours send you out of the office early to get outside and enjoy the warm weather.
Of all the things summer represents to people, an educational opportunity it’s generally not. School’s out for summer, after all. But while summer might not be a season for education, it might be the perfect time for learning.
A rising tide of evidence points to play and leisure — two things synonymous with summer — as being critical to learning. Summer’s warm temperatures are a welcome reminder that learning isn’t always such a serious business.
The role of play in learning is nothing new. Italian educator Maria Montessori pioneered its use in formal education at the beginning of the past century. Inspired by children’s natural curiosity and sense of play, she created what she envisioned as the ideal education environment at her school, Casa dei Bambini.
At her “Children’s House,” as it’s translated in English, children were the center of attention, not the teacher. She did away with orderly rows of desks pointed toward the front of the classroom and replaced them with low tables and chairs organized into activity centers.
Instead of formal instruction, children were encouraged to learn through guided activities and cooperation with each other. Mixed age groups allowed younger children to learn from older peers. Long blocks of time and freedom to move around the room let children explore their natural sense of curiosity.
Montessori’s approach resonated, particularly among early childhood educators. More than 4,000 of her namesake Montessori schools are dotted throughout the United States along with a further 20,000 throughout the world. Famous alumni include Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, culinary pioneer Julia Child and rapper and music producer Sean “Diddy” Combs.
It’s not just the success of those specific alumni that points to the effectiveness of play-based learning. Researchers at the University of North Florida studied the performance of 343 children in third and fourth grade and found that those who learned through play in preschool did better academically than those who had learned more traditionally.
Google’s Page credited early experience with self-directed learning for his later success. “I think it was part of that training of not following rules and orders, and being self-motivated, questioning what’s going on in the world and doing things a little bit differently,” he told TV interviewer Barbara Walters.
Ultimately, play is more about the ongoing process of learning and less about formal education; it’s about nurturing and cultivating curiosity.
Unfortunately for CLOs, learning games and play-based methods at work can seem like an amusing diversion at best or a time-wasting gimmick at worst. More often than not, harried employees just want to get their work done and go home. But that’s a distortion of the philosophy.
Self-directed learning can take place anywhere or any time. It’s not about a specific piece of knowledge or mastering a discrete skill or competence. Rather, it’s about an outlook and approach to development.
When you look closely, play is actually baked into learning systems today. With a surfeit of entertaining, well-produced content made searchable with just a few keystrokes, now more than ever is the time to encourage self-directed learning and a sense of play.
And don’t forget to take a break. Research has demonstrated that a well-timed nap locks in learning.
There’s your summer learning prescription: Go outside and play. Take a nap. Your boss will thank you.
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