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Embracing Learning Through Play

A new book encourages playful learning in classrooms — for all ages
Girl playing with lego at school

While learning through play may seem appropriate in early childhood, the idea that it could be part of the fabric of daily life in K–12 classrooms and schools may sound like a radical idea. After all, school kids typically enjoy playing during recess — not while there is serious academic work to be done.

The authors of a new book say the traditional view of play and learning is a “false dichotomy” and that relegating play to the sidelines in schools is a mistake. Learning is helped by "experiences that are playful — that are joyful, meaningful, actively engaging, iterative, and socially interactive,” and school really can be enjoyable they explain in A Pedagogy of Play - Supporting Playful Learning in Classrooms and Schools. The user-friendly book is the result of eight years of research led by a team at the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero (PZ), in collaboration with the LEGO Foundation and educators at schools in Denmark, South Africa, Colombia, and the United States.

What does playful learning look like?

Playful learning is influenced by different cultures but A Pedagogy of Play co-author Jen Ryan, senior project manager at PZ, says certain patterns emerged across the countries they researched.  

When playful learning is embraced in schools, students are given opportunities to:

  • Explore the unknown and “to find wonder — to be curious and to find meaning in their learning,” explains Ryan.
  • Lead their own learning, make choices, and have ownership and empowerment.
  • Find joy in their learning, and experience feelings of enjoyment and delight.

The researchers offer five ways educators can support playful learning in their classrooms:

1. Empower students to guide their own learning.

  • Get to know kids’ interests, strengths, and what they can contribute to the class. The more you understand your students, the more you can make meaningful connections between their lives and the curriculum.
  • Share decision-making responsibilities with students such as arranging the morning meeting, schedule, or classroom space to help them feel a sense of ownership of their learning.
  • Allow time for students to reflect on the new things they have learned or discovered. Play should be used with a purpose and help with learning goals.

2. Create a culture of collaborative learning together.

  • Build up relationships through play and look for ways for learners to connect to each other.
  • Build knowledge together through purposeful conversations. Check out Project Zero's Thinking Routine Toolbox for help.
  • Encourage a culture of feedback in the classroom where students can hear different perspectives about their schoolwork, including from peers. You can also ask students to lead feedback sessions and the Ladder of Feedback tool can help with the process. The authors suggest creating group norms for any comments such as “Be kind, be specific, and be helpful.

3. Encourage risk-taking and experimentation.

  • Lead kids in open-ended investigations with no “correct answers” to help them get more comfortable with the unknown. Explore the Selecting and Facilitating a Design Challenge and more resources via PZ’s "For Educators" tab on the Pedagogy of Play website.
  • Model the learning that you want to see and be open to exploring something new with your students where you don’t already know the answers. “The more we as adults can model for students what [experimenting] looks like and are transparent in our own vulnerabilities as educators, the easier it is for students to see that it’s okay to do that,” says Ryan. “There’s a lot of learning that comes out of trying things, making mistakes, learning from those mistakes and moving forward.”

4. Promote imaginative thinking.

  • Invite children to share stories and listen to other people’s stories. For high school students, look at the Storytelling and Story Acting for Older Learners tool. Role-playing can be helpful too. Consider dressing up as a story book character yourself.
  • Pose questions that encourage curiosity and wonder. You might ask, “What have you noticed about the moon?” versus “What are the phases of the moon?”
  • Engage the senses and the body. Get creative — you don’t need a ton of resources to promote playful learning. Ryan explains how, during a science lesson on plants in one of the schools in South Africa the researchers partnered with, a teacher encouraged her students to go outside to explore, search, and discover their own plants to bring back into the classroom to study.

5. Accept the different emotions that play can create.

  • Design joyful learning experiences. The PZ team suggests introducing an element of surprise — for example, you could begin a lesson without words, put a riddle up on the wall for students to solve, or turn your classroom into a “courtroom” or “café.”
  • Use play to investigate complex issues. If kids are hesitant to talk about a challenging topic, use a playful strategy to introduce it. One of the ideas the authors suggest is to ask students to jot down their ideas or questions on slips of paper, crumble them up, and toss them around the classroom. Afterwards, the learners can discuss the comments in pairs or groups.
  • Help students work through any frustrations. Playful learning isn’t the same as free play and can involve challenging moments, including having to negotiate or compromise with classmates. Be sure to celebrate when students successfully meet challenges or overcome frustrations.

The researchers invite educators to explore what playful learning might look like in their own communities, with the help of a Playful Learning Indicator Guide, and to document their experiences and processes in order to make them visible to others and enhance future student learning. A Pedagogy of Play also includes a chapter on what administrators, school leaders, and teachers can do to build a schoolwide culture of playful learning.

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