What is Learning? There’s More to it Than Knowledge

To Understand Learning, We Need to Define The Process of Learning

Last week we explored the complexity of play, including the concept of how play is the beginning of knowledge and how living beings learn the most through play.

But, what does it mean to be learning, and what does that process look like?

Again, it’s a term where the dictionary definition leaves a lot to be desired: “The acquisition of knowledge or skills through experience, study, or by being taught.”

This definition leaves out a very important piece of the puzzle, though – the process of learning doesn’t only lead to an acquisition of information, or more knowledge for the sake of knowledge.

The act of learning presents the learner with information that changes or causes behavior change. This is important, because all behaviors are observable and measurable. If you’d like to learn more behavior basics, this guide will help.

If you understand the process behind a change in knowledge and in behavior you’ll be much better equipped to elevate the learning process, and the environments learning occurs in, for your children, your dog, and even yourself.

What the learning process looks like

The Berkeley Center for Teaching and Learning offers a very helpful explanation of the learning process. By this definition, learning:


  1. Is active. That’s because we learn as we interact with the world and it’s countless environments.
  2. Builds on prior knowledge. This one is pretty self-explanatory: every new thing we learn builds on what we’ve learned in the past.
  3. Occurs in a complex social environment. Learning is a social activity that stems from the people we interact with, the culture we exist in, and so much more.
  4. Is situated in an authentic context. This means that learners can “engage with specific ideas and concepts on a need-to-know or want-to-know basis.”
  5. Requires learners’ motivation and cognitive engagement. This is SO important – the learner needs to be engaged. Think about your own classroom experiences – how many times were you completely zoned out? It’s a great example of why learning needs to happen outside of the classroom, too.

Learning through play

Because true learning requires all of the components we just talked about, it’s so important to find a balance between scheduled time and activities (like in a classroom) with downtime, free play, and other interactions.

That’s why you should let your kids learn through play!

We can’t think of learning as only happening in academia or in the classroom. Just because you are in a classroom doesn’t mean learning is automatically happening, as all of us adults can attest.

Learning is happening all the time, as long as we are behaving. And if we’re moving and alive, through all of the diversity and change that life throws our way, then we’re behaving.

Camp Doglando camper, Amber, is learning through play as she gives Dock Diving a go.
Camp Doglando camper, Amber, is learning through play as she gives Dock Diving a go.

Achieving diversity in learning

Structured education, whether in a classroom full of kids or a training class full of dogs, is predictable. Due to the predictability of those outcomes diversity of learning can’t always occur in such environments.

Contrast that with play, where you don’t know what the outcome will be. Each interaction with the world, motion that happens, and overall involvement in that experience of play offers uniquely diverse lessons because the outcome is unpredictable.

When the player doesn’t know what’s going to happen next, that’s when they learn to thrive in a variety of environments. It’s the same for adults, kids, dogs, and all other living beings. We can’t learn anything new if we’re doing the same things over and over again, because we have a pretty good idea of what the outcome will look like.

In play, diversity in learning comes from the uncertain outcome.

You’ve probably heard the old saying, “Change is the only constant.” That’s because change is not the exception, it’s the rule. Throughout nature, living organisms adapt to and cope with uncertain outcomes (change) in order to survive.

That’s why I love Paul Chance’s simple definition of learning so much. Learning is a “change in behavior due to experience.”

We’ll talk more about the importance of environment (and behavior!) in later posts, but for now, keep in mind that experiences are anything an animal does when it comes into contact with the environment.

Real-world examples of learning through play

Let’s have a look at this school in Colorado, where children learn conflict resolution through play.

Conflict resolution and increased physical activity throughout the day is the goal of the Playworks program. Playworks Colorado executive director Andrea Woolley explains, “Our goal is to have every recess in Colorado and across the country be a time that positively contributes to not only a kid’s physical well-being, but also their social and emotional well-being.”

With all of his in mind, can you think of some examples where your dog or child learned something through playing? Please, share these playful experiences that resulted in learning!