How did Chaser the border collie learn and retain the names of more than 1000 objects? That’s the subject of a forthcoming book by Dr. John Pilley, Chaser’s owner and trainer. Chaser has been featured in numerous articles, videos and television specials, including this one.
This is a fascinating story in its own right, but what caught my eye was how Dr. Pilley responded to a question in a current blog piece on Scientific American about the use of play in the process of learning.
Tension, fear and anxiety inhibit creative learning, and play and tension are incompatible. During play, creative learning can take place. If you are going for complex learning, you are not going to get any learning with tension and anxiety; I’ve learned that in over 30 years of teaching. One of the things that runs throughout the entire book, Chaser: Unlocking the Genius of the Dog Who Knows a Thousand Words, is that play is one of the secrets of Chaser’s learning.
On the surface, this is not particularly surprising. Yet, how many of us — coaches, teachers, parents — create systems in which playfulness is woefully minimized? This goes beyond the stereotypical yelling coach who creates tension and fear in his athletes. It is more a question of the tenor of practice. If someone was watching a training session, how would she describe it?
If it doesn’t look playful, it probably isn’t. And that means that an opportunity for deep learning and creativity (fundamental in sports and life) is missed.
There is little question in the scientific literature that play is fundamental to children’s learning. But, ironically, there are few people systematically looking at the use of play in sports. My own observations are that as athletes climb the ladder of success, many often feel (and look) stressed. Many just don’t look like they’re having much fun. (I see this especially with teenagers and college athletes who all of the sudden feel like the weight of the world is on their shoulders.)
Of course, training is hard, and sometimes it’s hard to have fun when you’re pushing yourself. But when you find yourself tightening up and perhaps overthinking something, try approaching your challenge with a sense of playfulness. You might be surprised by the results in terms of learning and creativity. And in your enjoyment and persistence.
“Play is our brain’s favorite way of learning.”
Diane Ackerman, contemporary American author
“Play is the highest form of research”
(attributed to Albert Einstein)