Play to Grow: TYO’s Experiential Learning Model

Children in Claire's class learn through play The act of play is an instinctual and fundamental part of childhood. When the fourth and fifth grade students in my afternoon intern classes rush into TYO, full of enthusiasm, it is clear that these students not only want to play, but they also need play as an outlet for this uncontainable energy. Throughout my first few weeks teaching in Nablus, I quickly learned that play is the most productive and beneficial means for this age group to learn, develop, and explore.

In addition to the immediate pleasure children get from playing, there are also long-term emotional, cognitive, and physical benefits to unrestrained play. Stuart Brown, president of the National Institute for Play discusses these benefits in his TED talk, Play is more than just fun, arguing that it is crucial to integrate play into our lives to promote healthy development. Play encourages the natural curiosity that children possess, which positively reinforces curiosity in other environments such as the classroom. Students are encouraged to think creatively when they play, promoting innovative problem solving when they are challenged in math, science, or art class. Finally, social play is central to creating a sense of belonging and community among classmates.

The curriculum for the afternoon intern classes covers similar topics of identity, belonging, and community, and I’ve utilized play as a tool for students to explore these complex subjects in an experiential way. Students have played tag, participated in treasure hunts and obstacle courses, raced each other, and played different team sports. Students are consistently engaged and enthusiastic during these classes. For many students, being at TYO is one of the only opportunities they have to play in an open, safe environment. The majority of TYO’s beneficiaries are residents of Nablus’ refugee camps, where physical space is constrained and population growth continues to impede upon children’s freedom to play. Besides the positive association my students have developed between outdoor play and learning, students also have the opportunity to develop social relationships with new peers. Due to the insular nature of the refugee camps, students have little opportunity to interact with peers from other communities. By learning through play, students are breaking down social barriers while simultaneously developing behavioral skills like teamwork and communication.

This type of experiential learning has been particularly effective in our afternoon English classes. Because language use is inherently social, the most effective means to learn a foreign language is through social interactions. Using play as a means to engage all the senses, the students are learning alternative ways to engage with English rather than just through a textbook. English has become more accessible and less intimidating to students whose strengths may lie outside of classic learning models. One of the greatest challenges to language learning is a lack of self-confidence while speaking. By giving students the opportunity to play without the fear of making mistakes, their confidence in English soars and so does the level of classroom participation. This confidence is transferrable to both academic and personal settings, yet another benefit of learning a foreign language.

At TYO, we foster students’ imaginations and channel their energy into positive learning environments. Rather than stifle the natural predisposition that my students have to play, we will jump, climb, explore, and run as a means to learning about subjects ranging from family relations to the English alphabet. Students will develop optimism, creativity, and openness through play, but, most importantly, they will have fun!

-Claire is a Fall 2014 International Intern at TYO