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Benjamin Mardell: Shaping Future Leaders through Playful Learning

Benjamin Mardell: Shaping Future Leaders through Playful Learning

Ladderworks is a publishing platform of diverse picture books and online curriculum with the mission to empower over a million kids to become social entrepreneurs. Our current series features interviews by our interplanetary journalist Spiffy with inspiring Social Entrepreneurs, Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Builders, and Changemakers who are advancing the UN SDGs. 

Hey, friends! Spiffy here, back with the scoop on the entrepreneurial leaders of Planet Earth. As the only interplanetary journalist stationed on this blue planet, I’m thrilled to present this galactic exclusive with Benjamin Mardell, principal investigator of Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Let’s learn what’s happening at Project Zero and how Benjamin is making a positive impact in the world.

Spiffy: Hi, Benjamin! Thanks for talking with me today. Tell me, what challenge are you addressing through Project Zero?

Benjamin: Thanks for having me, Spiffy! The young people who are in school today are growing up in a world that will be very different in ten or 15 years. This is because of the climate crisis that is fueling mass migration, the need to adapt our sources of food, how we move around, how we live near the shore and more, as well as the potential disruptive and creative possibilities of AI. No one can predict what the future will hold. But we can say with certainty the people will have to be adaptive, creative, take risks, and manage uncertainty. Play helps in all these regards, and school needs to be places that help prepare young people for these challenges.

Spiffy: I agree; we need strong and adaptive leaders today and in the future! What motivates you to do it?

Benjamin: I’ve met many people, including older children, who say they don't like to learn. That's crazy. Think of young children. They love to learn. They are learning all the time. They are great learners. Learning is something human beings are programmed to do. However, it seems that school convinces many that they're bad at learning or they don't like exploring, creating, and trying things out. I want all children to continue to love learning and for schools to be a place that fosters that.

Spiffy: I love your passion for education and fostering an enthusiasm for learning. What is the impact of your work?

Benjamin: Our work helps teachers and school leaders understand how to promote playful learning in school; how to keep the love of learning alive by bringing more play and playfulness into classrooms and schools. We do this by helping educators understand why they need a pedagogy (an intentional, collective approach to teaching and learning) to help them bring more play into classrooms; what playful learning looks and feels like in different cultural contexts (it's not the same everywhere in the world); and how they can do this (we offer practices and tools to support their work). 

Spiffy: Neat! Tell me about a recent organization milestone or initiative. What impact does it make on your audience or community?

Benjamin: My team just finished a book titled A Pedagogy of Play: Supporting playful learning in classrooms and schools. It has explanations, classroom examples, and tools to support teachers and school leaders in supporting playful learning. The book is available online for free and soon will be translated into Spanish and Chinese.

Spiffy: We’ll check it out! Is there anything else you would love to tell our audience?

Benjamin: Some people don't see the connection between play and learning; they see play as frivolous. But that is not the case. Play supports learning. This claim is supported by a growing body of research from neuroscience, anthropology, developmental psychology, educational research, and ethology. Indeed, play exists in all human cultures and in many, many different animal species because it supports learning.

Spiffy: Thanks for speaking with me today, Benjamin—it’s been an honor!

Benjamin Mardell is an educational researcher who has worked with children and teachers for over 35 years. He loves playing with his family, especially outside. (First published on the Ladderworks website on May 26, 2023.)

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of Ladderworks LLC.

© 2023 Ladderworks LLC. Edited by Lindsey Brannon. Spiffy’s illustration by Shreyas Navare. For the Ladderworks digital curriculum to help K-3 kids advance the UN SDGs, visit Spiffy's Launchpad: Creative Entrepreneurship Workshops for K-3 Kids and their caregivers here.