“Tear yourself away from the Saturday cartoons, boys, it’s time to go outside and play.” That oft-repeated mother’s admonition still rings in my ears. Today, sixty years later, with millions of children seemingly hypnotized by computer and video games, that parental lesson has now been appropriated by the big brands and is being repeated with much greater urgency.
A ‘Brand War’ is now underway for the minds of children. Global technology colossus Microsoft essentially conquered home play rooms and has just launched Minecraft Education for schools. A “Dirt is Good” Movement, funded by Unilever’s laundry products division, Persil, has even enlisted TED Talk superstar Sir Ken Robinson in its latest campaign to win parents and kids back from the virtual world with an appeal for the forgotten pleasures of outdoor play.
One of Britain’s most astute education observers, Martin Robinson, author of Trivium 21c (2013), was among the first to spot the emerging societal trend. In his recent online commentary, “Progressive Education, Shared Values, Play and Dirt” ( April 4, 2016), he identified the fault lives in the contemporary war for the hearts and minds of children.
“The story starting to unfold,” Robinson pointed out, was one of “global brands tapping into progressive education discourse and using it, emotionally, to firstly sell a product and secondly to campaign for libertarian parenting and play based learning.” The ultimate objective, he added, was to woo us into “letting go of what we know, opening our minds to creativity, playing outside and not on computers, or playing inside on computers or with (Lego) bricks…”
After reviewing the “Dirt is Good” media campaign and the recent Microsoft Minecraft Education launch promotion, Robinson’s critique appears to be deadly accurate. A report, Play in Balance, commissioned by Unilever’s Persil division, polled 12,000 parents of 5-12 year olds worldwide and provides the fodder for the “Dirt is Good” campaign.
The Persil-funded survey (February and March 2016) results were startling: In the United Kingdom, 75 per cent of parents reported that their children preferred to play virtual sports games on a screen rather than real sports outside. Almost one-third of children in the UK play outside for 30 minutes or less a day and one in five do not play outside at all on an average day. Children spend twice as much time on screens as they do playing outside.
Sir Ken Robinson’s interpretation of the survey’s lessons is far more problematic. “I think it’s important that we look again at the importance of play-based learning — there’s a long history of research to show that play is not a waste of time, it is not time that is badly spent. Play, among human beings, has very important social benefits.”
That sounds a lot like the competing narrative advanced by global technology advocates like Sky Academy, the British high-tech learning firm espousing ‘human potential’ and ” the power of TV, creativity and sport, to build skills and experience to unlock the potential in young people.” In announcing the impending launch of the Minecraft Education edition, Anthony Salcito, Microsoft VP of Worldwide Education, championed it as the next stage in the “immersive learning experience” which would “open the door to a classroom and a world of possibilities and learning infused with curiosity.”
Microsoft Education does not seem to be deterred in the least by Sir Ken Robinson and the “Dirt is Good” defenders of outdoor play. After spreading to millions of homes worldwide and 7,000 schools in 40 different countries, Minecraft Education edition will be rolled out in June 2016 in 11 languages and 41 different countries, and will allow teachers to download the program for free, in exchange for product marketing feedback. Corporate promotion touts the product as one that will “help to educate children on social skills, problem-solving skills, empathy and even help to improve literacy.”
The latest phase in what is generally termed “21st Century Learning” is starting to look a lot like an attempt to revive the now faded ‘romance’ of educational progressivism. Instead of learning from the past and its lessons, the ‘Brand War’ for children’s minds seems to be devolving into a tug of war between contending versions of play-based theory. In pursuit of play learning, it amounts to a familiar contest between those who want our kids to play inside and those who want them to play outside. Whether it’s outside or inside, one can only hope that they will be learning something of enduring value, deeper meaning, and measurable substance.
Who –and what — is winning the ongoing war for children’s minds? Is “play theory” making a comeback in today’s “Brand Wars” being waged in and around children and schools? What are the risks inherent in turning children’s education over to the big brands? How can the concept of “wholesome outdoor play” compete with “digital Lego” and virtual sports? Most importantly, what — if anything– have we learned from our educational past?