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To narrow the achievement gap, don't forget to play

Jessica-Russo-2013.jpgAt a recent event, I was inspired by the story of a high school principal who turned a failing school around by focusing on making the students happy. Poor achievement, low attendance, and general naughtiness caused by poverty, hunger, domestic violence, you name it, had resulted in high levels of stress in students, parents, teachers, administration. Quite simply, the kids were unhappy. But what to do -- More math class?

Rather than hiring more reading and math specialists, this principal hired more art and gym teachers. He brought in partners and other resources that would to help provide a safe environment for youth to play, get dirty, and explore, through programs such as Extension's 4-H and Master Gardeners. Students liked it. They got more interested in school and test scores improved dramatically.

This story reminded me what decades of research has confirmed--that play is essential to learning (for adults too, by the way). Classic psychologists such as Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, and ‎Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (who described the "flow" of learning) have shown that not only is play physically good for the brain (by stimulating nerve growth), but it also teaches us valuable social-emotional skills and actually makes it easier for us to solve problems.

group-of-youth-in-circle.jpgWith the current emphasis on test scores and the achievement gap, many formal educators and school administrators are understandably reluctant to make a concerted effort to prioritize play over straight academic support. This is where nonformal learning organizations like 4-H can help, because they have the flexibility to incorporate play into a focused learning experience.

Nonformal learning offers real-life, meaningful opportunities that can appropriately challenge youth in an environment that encourages active reflection as a way to turn failures into lessons about persistence in learning.

In fact, one of the best ways to close the achievement gap may actually be to help steer youth away from a belief that achievement is about natural talent or abilities (a fixed mindset), to the realization that everyone can learn, change, and develop the skills they need. Research has shown that this "growth mind-set," as Dr. Carol Dweck calls it, helps narrow the racial achievement gap. In one particular study, three times as many students who were taught this growth mindset showed improvement in effort, engagement, and grades, compared with the control group, which received no information about the growth mindset and continued to show declining grades. Few people are motivated to work hard if they think their efforts will be wasted. This fixed mind-set causes people to shy away from challenges and criticism, give up easily, and feel threatened by the success of others.

But as Dweck explains, "If you target that belief, you can see more benefit than you have any reason to hope for." Because people with a growth mindset believe that they can develop the skills they need, they tend to welcome and are better prepared to tackle and persist through challenges, they learn from criticism, and they are inspired by the success of others. This allows them to achieve more.
So, what can nonformal learning environments do to cultivate this growth mindset? And how can play help strengthen the learning experience? Here are a few tips:
  • Explicitly teach that the brain is like a muscle that can get stronger. Show them the research! Once they understand, they will begin to see themselves differently and open up to the possibility of improvement.
  • Praise their effort in attempting a challenge. No one loves to fail, but we can all learn to love a challenge when we can see it as a puzzle to solve and not an impossible obstacle.
  • Don't praise them for something they seem to do easily, since according to the research, this will cause them to equate intelligence with quick and easy success, and they will learn to fear a challenge. Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson presents a wonderfully simple article with three helpful tips for giving feedback.
  • Help them equate challenge with fun. We want them to learn that persistence pays off. Give them a puzzle to solve. Praise their effort. Encourage them to watch others to learn new strategies. Help them figure out what went wrong. Teach them to try again.
  • Make the effort fun! If a challenge gets too hard, stop and play a random game. Research shows that a playful mindset improves our ability to creatively solve problems.
How do you incorporate play into the learning environment? What do you see as the benefit of teaching and encouraging a growth mindset?

-- Jessica Russo, assistant Extension professor and director, Urban 4-H Youth Development Office

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  1. Thanks for this excellent blog. I appreciate your angle on how "play" can be a serious factor in the education of young people.
    Also, thanks for highlighting the high school principal who turned around a failing school. Below is a link to his bio at the 2013 Urban Extension Conference if anyone else interested in learning more about his approach (scroll down to the second to the last bio) . His name is John "J.D." Rios.

  2. Thank you, Jennifer. It seems like a mental leap to take play seriously (by its very nature, play is supposed to be fun, after all). But it's how we all learn--trying things out. Thank you for providing the link to Rios.

  3. Jess, thank you for a thought provoking post! I remember J.D. Rios vividly from Urban Conference. In addition to what you share in your post what struck with me was the fact that this principal took full advantage of the opportunity to work with Extension and the many wonderful programs we have to offer. He really saw how the formal and non-formal learning came together and benefited his students and the entire community.
    I encourage everyone to peruse the resources you shared on the blog and J.D's bio under Jennifer's comments.

  4. Thanks, Josey. It's that marriage of formal and nonformal that really brings about meaningful learning, I think. Nonformal learning environments have the flexibility to be able to take the formal learning to a level that brings out its significance.


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