Gaining Mastery and Competence: Redefining ‘Play’

Have you ever wondered why children love playing? Play is an important part of children’s lives. Without it, we cannot imagine childhood. Adults like to play too. However, as we grow, we have other things to worry about and do not get the time and opportunities to engage in enjoyable play. Nevertheless, deep inside, every one of us long to play.

When I was visiting my friend in South Africa last December (2005), we had feasts after feasts in the homes of his relatives and friends. We had a great eat everywhere we went and enjoyed ourselves to the full with fun talks and games.

During one such visitation, I noticed that the gathering was filled with children – cousins, nephews, nieces, etc. My friends’ two children (Leandra and Matthew) blended in and pretty soon, they were busy playing with the rest of the kids present for the event.

Being a psychologist, I constantly engage in naturalistic observation of human behavior (regardless of time and place). I am constantly on the look out for such an opening to enhance my understanding of human behavior and factors that affect the same. Hence, I took advantage of this situation to learn about children and their motivation to play.

I started with questions in my head. Why do children find play so fascinating? Why will they even sacrifice food and all other things for play? What is in a ‘play’ activity that really drives them so strongly? I looked for answers to these questions by keenly monitoring everything that transpired during the play.

It was obvious that they were having fun. But can ‘fun’ alone explain the motivation to play? Is there anything else? Is there anything else that we have not been able to identify so far? Something more important…? Well, as I was reflecting on all these, one particular incident opened my eyes to a whole new world of understanding the play behavior of children.

Every child that I noticed that day was actively attempting to MASTER a particular task (or enhance a skill). This was evident especially in my friend’s son, Matthew. After coercing other children (he cried the whole time until he was included in the game) to allow him to play with the group, he took his position and started hitting the tennis ball over the net (other kids didn’t accept him initially because he was ‘underage’ for this game). Sadly, he wasn’t really hitting the ball (this is why the older children didn’t want to include him in the first place).

However, once in a while, whenever he did hit the ball, he perked up (it didn’t matter to him if the ball went over the net or not), and gave the biggest smile you can ever imagine. I noticed a great sense of accomplishment and the accompanying contentment, happiness, and excitement in him.

Then I realized what really drives children to play. Children are highly motivated to play because they get to learn and sharpen new skills. By nature, children constantly look for ways to gain MASTERY of themselves and the environment around them. Hence, play serves as a channel that allows children to gain COMPETENCE in myriad of life-skills, vital to the functioning of an individual.

I asked my friend about his son’s desire and motivation to play on our way back home. The only answer he could give at that time was that ‘play is fun and children love to have fun’.

Although I don’t deny this answer, I am now more convinced than ever, that play is fun mainly because children get to gain MASTERY and build COMPETENCE. Thus, children become actively engaged in something that helps them to learn and progress. In essence, children love to learn!

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How do all these apply to teaching, particularly affective teaching? Teachers should accept the fact that children are inherently motivated to learn. We should stop battling with students in our attempts to put some ‘sense’ in them and show them the importance of learning. Children like to learn and undergo positive changes from their learning experience.

However, traditional teaching has failed because it did not focus on helping children develop self-efficacy (knowing that “I can do something effectively”). Thousands of children suffer from injured self-esteem, caused invariably by an inability to gain self-confidence through mastery of useful occupation or tasks at school. Unfortunately, competence has been defined as the ability to fit into a uniform mold of studentship and obtaining grades that would qualify one to move to the next level. For many decades, learning at school has been an exercise of ‘dull-content-acquisition’ with limited opportunities for exploration and application.

The school cannot be blamed for this. Schools always lack resources and expertise to accomplish something more than mere production of graduates who are academically similar (copies). However, teachers can make use of this knowledge to effect positive changes in their classrooms. If gaining competence and achieving mastery motivate children’s play behavior, teachers can provide opportunities to build their students’ motivation to learn by applying the same principle to teaching.

When children play, they are highly motivated and pay undivided attention because they get to gain competence and achieve mastery in the process. If teachers arrange learning activities in such a way that students experience instances in which they build competence and mastery of important tasks, they will find new meaning and energy to learn in the classroom. Gaining competence results in positive self-image, which in turn results in higher level of self-esteem. These will eventually lead to higher level of performance at school…only this time, students get to accomplish academic tasks by utilizing their own unique approaches! (this can reduce ‘learned-clones’)

Matthew’s smile constantly reminds me that students can be motivated to learn by allowing them to gain mastery and build competence in the classroom. Highly motivated students learn for fun. But that is not the only reason why they are propelled to learn. The more important reason, I would say, is the ability to see positive changes in one’s behavior and the satisfaction that comes from knowing that one constantly improves.

As humans, we all are born with a high need to gain control of ourselves and our surroundings. Play, allows for the fulfillment of this need. When the learning experiences at school cater to this particular need of students, teaching becomes more meaningful and effective.

Copyright July 2006 by Dr. Edward Roy Krishnan,

2 thoughts on “Gaining Mastery and Competence: Redefining ‘Play’”

  1. hi edward, i apologise for my comment in yahoo Q& A it is just that i tried to get into your web page with the info you gave me. However my computer came back with the reply no site found so i tried again tonight and found this. what you say here is quite truly what i have found in my work with school age children is they can and do learn from this style of learning. i say this because i mean both teacher and student are learning together thankyou for this site

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