Play and Learning: One Brazilian’s Point of View (*)

Eduardo O.E.M.C. Chaves (**)

We, human beings, have two basic tasks when we are born: one, immediate and extremely urgent; the other, long term.

The first of these two tasks is to survive. We are all born, as it were, prematurely and ill-equipped to live. We are born incompetent in the most elementary tasks: we are not able to feed ourselves, to communicate, to walk, to defend and protect ourselves against the elements, against other animals or even against other human beings. In our early years we need to be constantly helped by parents, family and community, otherwise we do not survive. But we are incredibly well-equipped to learn. And our basic education should aim to make us competent for living autonomously, so that we will eventually be able to take good care of ourselves.

The second of these two tasks is to develop ourselves as human beings. Aristotle liked to call this “flourishing” as human beings (Aristotle, 2009). Developing as a human being, however, is not equivalent to growing or maturing. We are not totally programmed by nature; the programming that nature gives us is minimal and quite open. It requires freedom and choice. It allows us, from a given time on, to choose the kind of life we want for ourselves, that is, to define a life project of our own choosing and to pursue what is needed to turn this life project into reality – into a life worth living.

Our education should therefore first aim to help us to become competent and autonomous in our lifesustaining task of survival and secondly help us to become competent to autonomously define a life project and to acquire the skills and resources necessary to make it a reality, i.e. human development.

But which type of education will best enable us to fulfill these tasks?

I have become more and more convinced as time goes by that we learn best when we are not intent on learning; when we are doing something else that is fun and interesting to us, such as playing.

For learning to take place as we perform other tasks, these other tasks must be fun and interesting, and to be fun, they must also be challenging. When tasks are fun, interesting and challenging, they become intrinsically motivating and engaging.

We do not learn when we are doing something we already know how to do, because the activity has ceased to be challenging (or fun or interesting). Routine, repetitive work is neither fun nor interesting nor engaging, because, after a short while, it ceases to be challenging and becomes boring. Routine, repetitive work is certainly easy: after a short while, it places no great demands on most people. And that is what is bad about it.

One of the great lies perpetuated by many educators is that, if left to themselves, students would never try to learn things that are difficult to learn. The truth of the matter is often the opposite: students do not like to learn things that are easy; they want to face challenges, because that is when they really learn, and, by the way, that is when their self-esteem is increased. [But that is another story: check, for instance, Seymour Papert’s concept of “hard fun” (Papert, 2002)].

Today the play of most kids, as they manoeuvre their smart phones, tablets and video game consoles, is tough and challenging. That is why they have fun playing their games: they learn as they play, and the difficulty of the challenges increases as they move along. A game that you can master quickly, in one or two hours, ceases being fun, because it quickly stops offering challenges and, therefore, chances to learn.

What do students learn when they play? They learn how to play the game, of course, and, depending on the game, they develop the cognitive, psychomotor and strategic skills and competencies required to win in it.

However, they learn many other things as a by-product, which they are often not even conscious of learning. They develop a number of skills and competencies in areas such as solving problems, anticipating threats, protecting themselves against threats, building winning strategies, generating opportunities, reflecting before acting, decision making and, in today’s complex games played on the internet, collaborating, negotiating objectives and strategies, resolving disputes, etc.

Are these not considered the most important life skills and competencies that the twenty-first century expects children to learn?

I have heard many teachers complain that students who seem so attached to doing almost anything, as long as they can use technology to do it, do not seem to be very enthusiastic about using technology in their learning.

Once, in 2004, at a conference sponsored by Microsoft Research, I heard university professors complain that technology-mediated remote education courses were meeting only a lukewarm reception on the part of their students. How so, they asked, when students seem so enthusiastic about using technology to play even “silly games”? That inspired me to look at technology in broader terms. Technology, I came to conclude, is anything that human beings invent to make their life easieror more pleasurable.

This definition allows us to divide technologies into two basic kinds – or to divide the uses of the same technology into two basic types:

  • Technology (or use of technology) that is useful;
  • Technology (or use of technology) that is fun.

In the first case, technology is, or operates as if it were, a tool.

In the second case, it is, or operates as if it were, a toy.

The reason that some teachers and professors have difficulty understanding why technology is so attractive to children, adolescents and young adults lies in the fact that technology, for these adults, is a tool, not a toy, whereas for children, adolescents and young adults, it is basically a toy, a source of challenges, a source of fun and enjoyment, an environment in which they can learn and continually test their capacity to learn more and more difficult things.

The use of so-called pedagogical electronic games in school often offers traps. Students quickly realize that games created by educators or textbook publishers taste too much like school work, not real play – even when these games, technically, resemble successful non-pedagogical games.

The main challenge that schools face today is to change the nature of schooling, not to design and create educational games that will extrinsically motivate students to learn what schools want them to learn. I am convinced that much, perhaps most, of the content that schools want students to learn is not worth learning. A lot of it is largely useless for most students. Some of it may even be pernicious. The rest the students can easily learn when they need it, in a “hands-on, “just in time”, “just enough” modular learning context. Schools ought to prepare people for life – for life in the twenty-first century; a century known as the “age of knowledge” and the “information age”.

And yet, schools keep trying to get students to learn, through teaching, material that they can easily find on the internet, whenever they need it (if they ever do). Thus they fail to help students to develop the simple and especially the higherorder competencies and skills that will make them competent and autonomous beings, workers and citizens in a society that suffers from information overload, because information (often more than we need) is always at our fingertips.

If the nature of schooling is changed in this direction, then one will not need to extrinsically motivate students to learn.

Learning will become engaging, even without electronic games: the “game of life” is challenging enough to engage anyone who is alive.

A good example of how learning becomes engaging can be found in the Brazilian culture.

Detailed planning, careful organisation and disciplined execution do not figure among the most evident features of Brazilian culture, but we make a virtue out of this fact by stressing the importance of “creative improvisation”. We love to live dangerously and face challenges. The time that we do not spend in planning and organisation we use to play and have fun. Things would be chaotic around here if we did not have a modicum of natural talent for this. But I think we do.

I illustrate: It is a well known fact that football is a big thing in Brazil, despite not being native to the country. Borrowed from England, football flourished here, almost becoming an art form. We are the only nation to have played in every World Cup and to have won five: 1958, 1962, 1970, 1994 and 2002. And no one can offer a convincing explanation for why (or how) we lost the final game in the 1950 and 1998 World Cups (to Uruguay and France, respectively), in which we ended up in second place.

Most Brazilian men played football when they were young. (Some continue to play it until old age.) Until about a couple of decades ago, we learned how to play football by playing it. It was a paradigmatic case of learning by doing. And we learned it well, in part because we played it a lot, simply every day, all year round. We used to attend school for only three hours a day (schools had three shifts during the day) and the weather was never too cold or too hot – and we did not mind playing in the rain. But we learned it especially well because playing football was fun and we enjoyed doing it.

One of the characteristics of play in general is that it is fun. For us, playing football used to require no justification or motivation other than the sheer fun of it. But we also enjoyed it because it was one of the few things that we, as children, could freely choose to do and that we could do without the presence and supervision of adults. We did not need instructors or coaches; we learned by ourselves. We only needed the will to learn, a little talent, a ball, a field and a lot of creative improvisation, and these things were always there. The children with more talent helped the ones with less.

Today, however, learning how to play football is rapidly becoming institutionalised, either as part of the physical education curriculum in regular schools (the trend is for kids to stay in school the whole day now) or in specialised football schools, where kids, now both boys and girls, learn how to play football in a planned, systematic and methodical manner, so that they can one day, who knows, become professional players and get rich and famous. (Some kids, I am sad to say, attend specialised football schools in the evening, after a whole day of regular schooling).

Learning to play football has become more like regimented work than spontaneous play. I am convinced that this change is largely responsible for our steady decline in professional football.

But, to close this section, let us move from playing football to watching football.

Among adults, both men and women, professional football provides a favourite topic of conversation in Brazil. Brazilians are good football critics. They can easily identify when football is played creatively and when it is played efficiently. Which is preferable, they discuss: to play pretty (creatively) or to play to win (efficiently)? Brazilians, of course, prefer football played both creatively and efficiently. That tops the list. At the bottom of the list we have football played neither creatively nor efficiently. In between, we prefer a game played creatively but not efficiently to one that is played efficiently but not creatively.

If we define creative football as football that is fun to play and enjoyable to watch, and efficient football as football that results in winning the game, Brazilian football watchers, even when our favourite team is involved, prefer to lose a game that was enjoyable to watch to winning a dull and joyless game. They call the latter an ugly game.

This fact provides, in my view, an important clue to our culture: we love having fun and enjoying ourselves, even if we end up losing the game. Learning, in the context of the twenty-first century, needs what we used to find in football in Brazil: creative improvisation, freedom, challenge, the union of passion and talent, fun – pure, natural, unfabricated, unadulterated joy. Learning today needs to be seen more like play and less like work. This would make learning, I dare hope, quite natural to Brazilian culture.


Aristotle (2009), The Nicomachean Ethics, 2nd edn, New York: Oxford University Press.

Papert, S. (2002), ‘Hard Fun’, The Bangor Daily News (Bangor, Maine). Accessed: May 2013, available from:


(*) Article published in Cultures of Creativity: Nurturing Creative Mindsets Across Cultures, organized by David Gauntlett & Bo Stjerne Thomsen (The LEGO Foundation, June 2013). 



Independent consultant, lecturer and author on Philosophy, Education and Technology. São Paulo, Brazil.

Eduardo Chaves has retired from a productive career in higher education, and is now writing, lecturing and consulting. After receiving his PhD in Philosophy from the University of Pittsburgh, PA, USA, he taught in the Philosophy and Educa­tion Departments of California State University at Hayward, Pomona College in Claremont, CA, the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo, the Pontifical Catholic University of Campinas, the Salesian University of São Paulo and the State University of Campinas, the first two in the USA, the last four in Brazil.

In Brazil Dr. Chaves is one of the pioneers in the area of applying digital technology to improve learning – in basic education, non-formal health education and the corporate setting. His inte­rest in this area led him to create, in 1983 at the State University of Campinas, an interdisciplina­ry research nucleus to study and investigate the issue, which is the first institution of this type.

Dr. Chaves was a consultant to government, non-government and private organisations for technology-based cooperative learning, innova­tion-focused leadership and large-scale change management (especially in schools and school systems). For the past ten years, he served as a member of the International Advisory Board of Microsoft’s worldwide initiative Partners in Learning, and as the Coordinator of the UNESCO Chair in Education and Human Development at the Ayrton Senna Institute in São Paulo. He is also an advisory board member of several non-governmental organisations and program­mes in Brazil.

He is the author of several books and innume­rable articles in the areas of philosophy, educa­tion and technology. For the last eight years he has maintained a blog entitled Liberal Space ( that presently offers about 800 articles on almost every contempo­rary issue.

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