The concept of the “whole learner” is grounded in the science of brain development and learning, which tells us that, at every stage of development, learning doesn’t happen in neatly defined silos.¹
Much like a “constructive web,” all children develop along simultaneous “strands,” or pathways, demonstrating responsiveness to different yet connected constructive experiences.² This development is predicated on the learning opportunities available, and the context in which the learning happens.
From the moment all children are born, they possess a tremendous, natural capacity for learning. The opportunity to harness that capacity—and grow into productive, engaged members of society—is dependent on creating the conditions for all children to access and fully engage in high-quality learning experiences.³ With developmentally rich contexts as a foundation, healthy, holistic learning and development requires experiences that allow students to develop cognitive skills, both “academic” skills like language and numeracy, and “learning-to-learn” skills like critical thinking and problem-solving; physical skills like fine motor control; social skills like communication and collaboration; creative skills like imagination and symbolic representation; and emotional skills like self-regulation and executive function.
In considering how to design learning experiences that effectively develop this breadth of skills and set the stage for deeper learning, we can take a lesson from children themselves and the ways in which they naturally learn through self-directed, playful experiences. What does it look like when children are learning effectively, exercising agency, overcoming challenges, and making new discoveries? They are engaging in experiences that are: meaningful —connecting new content or concepts to things they already know and understand; engaging —hands-on, minds-on opportunities that are absorbing and limit distraction; iterative—providing the chance to experiment, learn, and retry in a self-directed cycle; socially interactive —promoting learning through communication and understanding diverse perspectives; and joyful—creating a positive emotional response that elicits interest and motivation.⁴
Context includes the environments, experiences, and relationships that comprise human life. The context is comprised of (a) the levels of organization within each person’s body (genes, cells, organs, and systems—i.e., the nervous, circulatory, digestive, and respiratory systems–and the chemicals circulating within and across these physiological levels) AND (b) the levels of the person’s social, cultural, and physical world within which they are embedded (social relationships, neighborhoods and communities, social institutions, the physical ecology, and culture), all of which change interdependently across time (history). Simply, within a dynamic-systems approach to human development, all levels of context are integrated, relational and bi-directional, and coact with the individual. As such, context drives our biology, including our genetics, with each person’s life course shaped by the specific features of these levels as they coact with the individual across time and place.
Cantor, P., Lerner, R. M., Pittman, K., Chase, P. A., & Gomperts, N. (in preparation). Whole-Child Development and Thriving: A Dynamic Systems Approach. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Experiences that model these characteristics can occur in both child-directed and adult-directed environments. When children are engaging in informal, imaginative play with friends, like putting on a dramatic performance complete with costumes and sets (either imagined or made from whatever is at hand), they are developing language skills, creating and understanding symbolic representation (critical for early literacy), and collaborating with others who inhabit the imagined world with them. An older student tackling an assignment to model a detailed cityscape with clay or a computer program is also involved in a self-directed, creative activity (within a more structured learning framework led by an educator), and is developing a deeper understanding of mathematical concepts (geometry, sorting, and quantifying), practicing spatial reasoning, and engaging in proactive problem solving.
Throughout the continuum of development, from birth through grade 12 and beyond, whole-learner approaches aim to provide every individual learner with meaningful, engaging, iterative, socially interactive, and joyful learning experiences that set the stage for the interconnected development of a breadth of skills.
Learning Through Play at School
Learning through play at school can take many forms, including active learning, experiential learning, guided discovery learning, inquiry-based learning, problem-based learning, project-based learning, or Montessori education.
The connective tissue of these experiences is that they are purposeful and scaffolded, and the core characteristics of the experiences effectively set the stage for deeper learning: They are meaningful, actively engaging, socially interactive, and joyful.
Collectively, these experiences empower continual, iterative learning and development across domains—physical, social, cognitive, emotional, and creative.
Parker, R., & Stjerne Thomsen, B. (March 2019) Learning through play at school. LEGO Foundation, DK.
¹ Golinkoff, R.M., & Hirsh-Pasek, K. (2016). Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells Us About Raising Successful Children. APA Press: Washington, D.C.
² Cantor, P., Osher, D., Berg, J., Steyer, L., & Rose, T. (2019). Malleability, plasticity, and individuality: How children learn and develop in context, Applied Developmental Science, 23:4, 307-337, DOI: 10.1080/10888691.2017.1398649.
³ Osher, D., Cantor, P., Berg, J., Steyer, L., & Rose, T. (2020). Drivers of human development: How relationships and context shape learning and development, Applied Developmental Science, 24:1, 6-36, DOI: 10.1080/10888691.2017.1398650.
⁴ Zosh, J.M., Hopkins, E.J., Jensen, H., Liu, C., Neale, D., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Solis, S.L., & Whitebread, D. (2017). Learning through play: A review of the evidence (white paper). The LEGO Foundation, DK.