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Playing to Learn

How a pedagogy of play can enliven the classroom, for students of all ages
Pedagogy of Play

Play and school can seem diametrically opposed. School is structured, often focused on order; play, by definition, is not.

But within this paradox of play and school, educators can find meaningful learning opportunities, advancing students' academic skills as well as the social skills that will allow them to thrive in adulthood and enjoy their childhood now, according to researchers from Project Zero (PZ), a research center at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  

With support and collaborative input from the LEGO Foundation, Project Zero embarked on an exploration of the pedagogy of play in 2015, in partnership with the International School of Billund in Denmark, which has made play a key part of its approach to learning. Since then, researchers have looked at how play enlivens lessons in three schools in South Africa, as well. The goal is to understand, articulate, and advocate for the role of play in learning and schools.

In Denmark, playful learning has meant allowing middle school students to design their own schedules for two weeks, for instance; or students drawing a map of the world onto an orange. In South Africa, it looked like five-year-olds drawing words with the ‘er’ sound. Universally, a playful pedagogy allows students to experiment, use their imaginations, and be creative. 

There is a universality to play: children are often more relaxed and engaged during play, and it’s enjoyable — all aspects that facilitate learning. But there are also cultural specifications to what play looks like, when it’s appropriate, and who children play with.

The hope of the PZ researchers is that by observing playful learning and asking questions about its characteristics, they can work with educators to develop a pedagogy of play in their own contexts — a systematic approach to the practice of playful learning and teaching — that can weave through the tensions between school and play.

Here are some takeaways from their research thus far — and the questions that they, and other educators, are grappling with for the future.

It’s possible to play with a purpose. There is a difference between free play and playful learning. While both are important, a pedagogy of play is grounded in playing toward certain learning goals, designing activities that fit in and leverage curricular content and goals. Children are trusted to direct their own learning, but with appropriate supports from their teachers to meet specific goals. 

While learning through play is universal, what that looks like depends on the culture. There is a universality to play: children are often more relaxed and engaged during play, and it’s enjoyable — all aspects that facilitate learning. But there are also cultural specifications to what play looks like, when it’s appropriate, and who children play with. In South Africa, Pedagogy of Play researchers and local researchers identified three South African indicators of play, centered around the concept of ubuntu, or a sense of human interconnectivity: ownership, curiosity, and enjoyment. In Denmark, that looked a little different. The indicators of play the researchers and educators identified were choice, wonder, and delight.

Older students can benefit from play in the classroom, too. “Play is a strategy for learning at any age,” says PZ researcher Mara Krechevsky. While older students and their teachers might have more curricular demands than younger students, playful learning still has an important role to play — it might just look different. The kinds of activities that inspired a sense of ownership, curiosity, and enjoyment among older students in South Africa — like a debate over the nature of facts — might not qualify as play for younger learners.

“The commonality is this sense of playfulness — some sort of agency and sense of control over what you’re doing; some sort of curiosity; and that you’re enjoying yourself,” says PZ researcher Ben Mardell.

“Play is a strategy for learning at any age.” – Project Zero's Mara Krechevsky.

And so can adults. “We want students to feel they have agency, and it’s really hard to imagine someone who doesn’t have agency instilling it in someone else,” Mardell says. “We need to provide teachers with that agency so they can take that back to their students.”

Again, what’s playful for a group of educators might look different than it does for children. In one study group of teachers in Denmark, the process of coming up with research questions to explore together felt like purposeful play.

But the PZ researchers do have at least one example of teachers participating in more childlike play: PZ researcher Lynneth Solis recalls how, at a school in South Africa, a group of teachers actually went out to play a game on the playground. “The idea was to bring themselves back to what it means to be a child, and what interactions are happening during play,” she says. During the game, the educators “realized they were bumping into each other, and it provided some insight that when children bump into each other during playtime it doesn’t mean they’re trying to hurt each other — it gave a little insight into the child’s experience.”

Learn more

Project Zero has a dedicated blog to Pedagogy of Play. You can also find more resources at the International School of Billund site and at Project Zero, including the most recent Pedagogy of Play working paper, “Toward a South African Pedagogy of Play.”

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