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Let Them Play!

Erik (HASH) Hersman on Flickr

During a recent admissions event for my school, I was speaking to a group of parents of younger children. When speaking to prospective parents, I usually try to give a thorough rundown of my class and my methods. After explaining my approach to teaching cognitive skills through technology, a parent of a seven-year-old asked me how his child should be learning to code to set her up with the best skills for the future.

He wondered if she should be learning languages like C++ through tutorials on YouTube or even working with a tutor. A few other parents replied that they were wondering similar things. I understand these instincts as a parent. Your child has an interest in technology, and you want to encourage them in their passions. However, in my mind, learning to “code” is approaching the problem from an adult’s perspective. One of the best age-appropriate technology skills elementary school students should focus on is imaginative design through play.

Certainly, every child is a different case, but I like to apply a rule that I call the 80/20 rule. To be balanced, 80% of a child’s time should be focused on generative, creative design. This tinkering or making can take many forms, but anything that springs from their imagination and is driven by their interests works towards this goal. Designing mini-games in Scratch, building marble mazes, assembling Arduino robots, or just crafting with Lego are all great examples. In short, this is what we call play, and it is the best technology tutor in my opinion. The remaining 20% is for what I call “end user” time: playing video games, following tutorials on YouTube, or practicing a more advanced language.

To give an example from my own home, my son absolutely adores Lego and Star Wars, and he frequently gets sets for birthdays and holidays. Putting together these sets teaches really great skills like following linear directions and spatial reasoning. However, if he were only putting together pre-packaged sets, he would be missing out on the problem-solving and design benefits of Lego. So, I maintain a large collection of loose pieces for him to create with. After a time, the majority of his beloved sets get relegated to the sundries bin.

It should be said that when he builds from pure imagination, his designs are mismatched and clunky. A far cry from the sleek art that Lego engineers design on a regular basis. However, his designs contain an added layer of complexity that I can’t see. When he looks at a Lego plane he built from scratch, his imagination fills in the gaps in his design and adds a creative sheen that only he can see. Moreover, he has figured out thousands of small problems with his design along the way – problems he never would have encountered without the process of play.

I see this same dynamic in my middle school students. Their first platformer or open-world game designs are slow, pixelated, and buggy. However, when the design of these games flows entirely from their own minds, you can see the effect of the design process on their faces. They simply beam with pride when I play their games and find some strange mini-boss or a hidden level. If we had instead spent this time learning a language through step-by-step tutorials we would have missed many opportunities for authentic problem solving.

Well, this does beg the question: what if a student is truly adept with programming and shows a proclivity towards learning new technologies? This is an interesting question, but I believe the 80/20 rule is even more crucial for bright, motivated students. I have taught quite a few students like this throughout my career, and it all comes down to opportunity cost. There will always be time for them to learn languages and concepts like version control, but access to childhood imagination is time-sensitive.

An interesting case that illustrates this concept is the childhood of computer scientist, philosopher, and virtual reality pioneer, Jaron Lanier. A brilliant and gifted child, Jaron’s father famously took him out of school at the age of nine to help build a geodesic dome of his own design in the desert. This would seem counterintuitive to many parents of modern students, although this effort did little to slow his education in technology. In fact, he still enrolled in New Mexico State University by the age of 13, and helped to commercialize virtual reality hardware like VR goggles by the age of 25.

While not every child needs or would benefit from this level of creative engagement, the power of childhood imagination still remains ever-constant. When the time comes, C++, python, and git will still be there to be explored, but the time spent with creativity and play is still some of the most meaningful work we do in childhood.

Learn More

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