Play is serious stuff. It’s at the heart of how humans learn new skills, integrate new understandings, practice social relationships, develop perserverance, and work out our understanding of the world. And yet rather than thinking about school as a place to play, we talk about school as work. Luckily educators are starting to think more carefully about how we can use notions of play as a pedagogical approach.

Read more to learn about:

  • What is play?
  • Why are educators paying so much attention to play?
  • Strategies for bringing play into your classroom.

What is play?

Even though it’s a fundamental part of the human experience, we often find “play” difficult to define. But we can surely recognize examples of playing accross all ages:

  • Children running, jumping and climbing on playground equipment.
  • Middle schoolers building a world in a video game.
  • High school kids playing instruments together just for fun.
  • Adults collecting stamps or comic books, or learning how to dive.

Experts on play often define play as something done for its own sake, where the process is more important than an end point or goal, where novelty and flexibility are integral, and where participants… just look happy and express feelings of enjoyment (Encyclopedia of Early Childhood Development).

In their joion project on pedagogies of play Lego Foundation and UNICEF start the discussion by talking about the characteristics of play as being Joyful, Active, Engaging, Meaningful, Interactive, Iterative.

And of course there are many different types of play:

Games with formal rules like Monopoly or Chess are a kind of social play, while group work can lead to communicative play. Object and locomotive play are doing things like climbing on equipment and playing with blocks or a hulahoop. When you see a young child digging a hole in the sand, or building a wall of rocks in a stream they are engaging in mastery play. Acitivities like building paper airplanes, and racing cars are fun exploratory play.  And finally dressing up, talking to teddy bears, and having a tea party are all kinds of imaginative play.

Examples of kids playing

Why are educators paying so much attention to play?

When we look at how play affects our brains and bodies we can easily see how play and learning are interconnected:

Brain development: play helps with neurogenesis – the process by which new neurons are formed in the part of the brain that has a key role in learing and memory (Barros et al 2019).

Executive function: play leads to changes in the prefrontal cortex that helps wire up the brains executive control center, which helps regulate our emotions, planning and problem-solving (Pellis in Hamilton, 2014)

Dopamine: playing leads to the release of dopamine, a brain chemical that makes us feel good, and makes us want to repeat that experience.

GABA and seretonin: playing produces GABA, the brain molecules that reduce feeling of fear and anxiety, and seretonin, a hormone that helps regulate reward and pleasure.

It’s easy to see how each of these effects of play could be used to help develop learning opportunities that are not only pleasurable, but are also meaningful, and that create a desire in our students to learn more.

How can I bring play into my classroom?

Bringing play into your classroom is as much about an attitude as it is activities. Here are a few things to get you started:

  • Strive to “find the yes” to student ideas. Your student wants to write about their dog and not a person they admire (as you’ve assigned), find the yes and help them write about the things they admire about their dog.
  • Find delight in the unexpected. Take the time to stop your lesson and look out the window at the snow falling down.  Share your delight at how weird it is that math works the way it does. Play the The Chaos Game for fun.
  • Create a culture where just trying something, even if it doesn’t succeed, is safe and valued. Can You Count is an easy game you can do tomorrow.
  • Make time for playful exploration of open ended questions. Take half an hour to play Make it Fly! 

Gentle breezes,