How we enable learning at Comini Microschool

The unsaid question often on parents' minds is this: Play is for young children. As they transition into grade school life, don’t we need to help them along by instilling rigor and discipline with some form of conventional classroom or textbook learning?

Our answer is a firm no, and this is our attempt at articulating why.

Play is pleasurable, seemingly purposeless activity through which we discover purpose, perspective and meaning in the long-term.

This really is worth dwelling on. Through purposeless exploration of our world, we can find purpose – on our own. A purpose that can imbue our lives with meaning and give us reasons to look forward to our days and weeks. Well that’s lovely, but still a bit abstract. How does this belief translate into daily practice at Comini? How can play help when tackling “serious” subjects like Mathematics or Geography?

The LEGO foundation has a wonderful white paper summarizing the latest research on the positive effects of play. It is worth reading in its entirety. We have pulled out a few choice quotes in the references. One particular image in there gets to the heart of what we are doing with playful exploration.

What we most often see in conventional schooling is an emphasis on the visible skills at the surface. This is always an abstraction that builds on invisible competencies.

The misguided emphasis on what seems like fair and objective assessment also focuses on the visible, forcing even the best educators to focus on teaching the visible skills.  This is like trying to build a pyramid from the top first.

We now know enough from neuroscience and developmental psychology that children are relentlessly curious and learning all the time with their entire body, mind, and being. However, their learning is anchored in the real, because the real world is still full of mysteries and they haven’t internalized and abstracted these away like us adults. 

The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Ascertain this and teach him accordingly” – David Ausubel. 

Children are still building this foundation on which abstractions can sit. Our focus at Comini is on the playful exploration of this foundation. 

Our goal with the daily learning opportunities we create at Comini is to explore and help build these foundational competencies:

We don’t worry about the visible peaks!

We’ll discuss these in detail later, how these broad skills are useful – more importantly – transferable. That is, building these skills in something like pretend-play, or board games can help when they are ready and interested in exploring the subjects that are usually taught in school. 

What we do want to unpack now is what the daily practice of playful exploration looks like at Comini with topics like numeracy and literacy. Learning to read, and learning math are effortful skills because these are abstract human inventions. On the contrary, learning to speak comes to us effortlessly when we are bathed in language as children. But the path to mastery is not through memorization of surface skills.

We’ve come across some 2nd grade textbooks that offer up the names of two numbers being added. In the equation 5 - 3 = 2, 5 is the minuend and 3 is the subtrahend. It’s a fair bet that you knew this, but it slipped out like all the other irrelevant facts we were made to memorize. It is important to note that it is irrelevant in the particular context of a young child learning how to model the world and find meaningful patterns, but not for a number theory expert discussing their work. For the young child, it is irrelevant because the underlying patterns of numbers and their manipulation are not there yet!

Learning to read

We know enough about the science of reading to know that the whole-language approach that was used for decades, and still in use, is wrong. But many are too quick to jump into phonics (which is correct) and make the approach dry and tedious. One example is a 40-year-old book that is still regularly #1 on Amazon (USA) in the parent reference section. It breaks down learning to read into 100 dry, abstract exercises. Many grateful parents talk about how it helped, but not without a lot of tears and frustration. This is no different from memorizing multiplication tables. 

When we leach out the joy and happiness in learning, we can get surface learning, but we do not build the foundation. More importantly, we also are teaching children the idea that meaningless manipulation without any independence or autonomy is required in the world. (More about this later.)

The playful, joyful, meaningful approach to learning-to-read involves building the core invisible skills of attention and focus, working memory, critical thinking — and most importantly making the joy of reading visible. 

For instance, when reading a word or a phrase, we are a)  glancing at a sequence of symbols, b) transforming those into sounds, and c) retaining them in our working memory to be able to then recognize the meaning of the full sequence. Young children with developing working memories may just not be ready yet to retain sequences in their mind. 

The most important thing we can do while these competencies are growing is to read to children and allow them to pick books that they like – even if the stories seem shallow to us as parents. We have put together a high-level reading primer and a more practical how-to guide.


Similarly, with mathematics, the focus is not on symbol manipulation, but on the core invisible skills of logical reasoning, analytical thinking, and abstract thinking. Consider this question from one of our recent activities (We are doing a space-themed month to celebrate the Chandrayaan-3 lunar mission.)

(Hint: It has do with recognizing patterns)

We do stuff like this with real pebbles at Comini, and in picture form for take-home activities. The idea here is to get children to understand that there is often no single right approach to a problem. The goal is not to get this right. It is to explore this problem playfully, try different paths and develop a deep understanding that math is a pattern language.

Let us revisit our list of core competencies.

Our goal with the learning opportunities we create is to explore and help children build these core competencies on their own:

Take autonomy & agency. It is about empowering children and helping them realize they can take ownership of their learning. Excessive direct instruction where we compel children to sit through activities, however fun or useful we think it might be, takes that away. Similarly we cannot force children to persist. Well, we can, but should not. Instead of discovering the rewards of persisting with an activity to experience outcomes, they learn that meaningless persistence is required in school and later in life. Abstraction is another skill that we can build naturally, but after having enough time to explore and learn the thing that is being abstracted.

It is inevitable for many of us parents to get anxious when we see our child is not reading yet, isn’t rattling off factoids or performing fluent mathematical jugglery. Another big worry is they are not doing enough. The key thing to note is that there is learning happening all the time. The visible peak you are looking for hasn’t surfaced yet. And that’s OK! Learning is, to borrow a phrase, broad, interconnected, and dynamic. The dynamic nature can also mean we see long plateaus of what seem like “no learning” and then flashes of insight. We see this over and over at Comini.

It is worth articulating what we will NOT do at Comini because it can be counter-productive.

What we will instead do is:

In the book Becoming Brilliant, the authors discuss what they call the 6 C’s that are essential in our modern world: Collaboration, Communication, Content, Critical Thinking, Creative Innovation, and Confidence. This resonates with us and Comini will work towards building these C’s with playful exploration. 


Learning through play: a review of the evidence

Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells Us About Raising Successful Children

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

Notes from Learning through play whitepaper

“Learning through play is about continuity; bringing together children’s spheres of life - home, school and the wider world, and doing so over time.”

“Learning through play happens through joyful, actively engaging, meaningful, iterative, and socially interactive experiences.”

“Learning through play supports overall healthy development, acquisition of both content (e.g., math) and learning-to-learn skills (e.g., executive function)”

“Attaining key content and facts is important for school and life, but children also need a deep, conceptual understanding that allows them to connect concepts and skills, apply their knowledge to different situations, and spark new ideas (Winthrop & McGivney, 2016; Frey, Fisher, & Hattie, 2016)”

“ When playing together, children are not just having fun but are building skills of communication and collaboration.”

“A game of hide-and-seek helps them to manage feelings about the unknown while also helping them to think about what other people know and see. Beyond enjoyment, playful experiences have the potential to give children the skills they will need in the future that go beyond facts. As we discuss more fully below, playful experiences appear to be a powerful mechanism that help children not only to be happy and healthy in their lives today but also develop the skills to be the creative, engaged, lifelong learners of tomorrow.”

“First, research in the last few decades has repeatedly shown that the different domains of development are not silos as much as they are interconnected gears: development in one area can influence development in another. For example, physical development lays the foundation for later cognitive and social skills.”

“Importantly, lessons from neuroscience also tell us that learning is dynamic and not easily divisible into separate and independent mental processes.” 

“For example, executive function - a suite of abilities that includes working memory, the ability to inhibit impulses, and switch attention between tasks or rule sets - has been shown to relate to a variety of academic skills including math and literacy. Some studies have even found that children’s impulse control in preschool predicts a wide range of outcomes in adolescence and adulthood, including higher SAT scores, better health, and lower rates of substance abuse.”