April 17, 2020

A playful diversion (especially for Harry Potter fans)

Ben Mardell

A Harry Potter themed blog post in the midst of a global pandemic? While we wish we had a magic wand that could banish COVID-19, this post is offered as a respite from the real world, especially for those of you who are Potter fans and playful learning geeks (we suspect there may be significant overlap here). As Albus Dumbledore, the head master of J.K. Rowling’s magical school Hogwarts, noted about the Weasley twins’ shenanigans, during dark times comic relief is something to be treasured.

Pedagogy of Play: The Contribution from the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry was founded over a thousand years ago to provide a high standard of magical education for the youth of the British Isles (see Hogwarts: A History). While not all instruction at the school can be called magical (or even good) there are lessons to be gleaned from the school about a pedagogy of play. In this post we look at what can be learned from Hogwarts concerning three central questions:

Why is playful learning in school important?
What does playful learning in school look and feel like?
How can educators promote cultures of playful learning?

Why is playful learning in school important?

The experiences of Hogwarts students make clear the importance of the skills and dispositions that playful learning promotes. For example, in their first year at the school, Harry Potter, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger must make their way past a giant, three headed dog, open a magically locked door, cross a life sized chess board with dangerously enchanted pieces, and figure out which potion to take in order to pass through fire—all in service of thwarting an evil wizard. Risk-taking, problem solving, and critical thinking were essential for Harry, Ron and Hermione to solve these complex problems.

What does playful learning in school look at feel like?

In order to promote playful learning, educators need a clear understanding of what the phenomenon looks and feels like. In groundbreaking playful work at the Aarhus University,  researcher Savhannah Schulz takes on this important question in relation to Hogwarts, focusing on the playful pedagogy of specific teachers. Summarizing her findings she writes:

Grubbly-Plank seems to be particularly strong on following students’ wonder and delight. Lupin has his strengths in empowerment, engagement and working through a challenge. Hagrid is strong on curiosity and especially risk-taking, but perhaps is not able to transfer his own delight to his students. Dumbledore values individual curiosity, imagination, ownership and in some forms also risk-taking. In Fantastic Beasts, he also seems to aid students in reflecting on what they have learned. Mad-Eye (ignoring for a moment that he is really Barty Crouch Jr.) takes students seriously as agents of their own learning and empowers them in some ways (Schulz, 2020).

A conceptual problem here, which Schulz acknowledges, is that while play is universal (everyone plays including wizards and witches), play is also culturally specific. In the absence of Indicators of Playful Learning for Hogwarts, she relies on indicators developed at the International School of Billund (ISB). While ISB has wonderful teachers, none (as far as we know) is a witch or wizard. Developing culturally specific indicators for the magical world is an area where further research is required.

How can educators promote cultures of playful learning?

Promoting cultures of playful learning in school involves educators navigating the paradoxes between play and school. For example, teachers need to support student agency and at the same time help them meet adult learning goals. Research at Hogwarts on a magical instrument called the pensieve provides an important tool to support teachers in this effort.

The pensieve is a stone bowl that is used to review memories. Hogwarts’ head master Albus Dumbledore explains the pensieve:

I sometimes find, and I am sure you know the feeling, that I simply have too many thoughts and memories crammed into my mind…One simply siphons the excess thoughts from one’s mind, pours them into the basin, and examines them at one’s leisure. It becomes easier to spot patterns and links, you understand, when they are in this form.

We imagine educators know exactly what Dumbledore describes. There are so many interactions and conversations that happen in a typical school day that, even though teachers probably see only 10% of them, at the end of the day, it’s hard to remember what they have heard and observed.

For those in the non-magical world, the tool of pedagogical documentation can serve as a substitute for the pensieve. Documentation, which involves gathering artifacts of student learning including video, photographs, observational notes and student work, can allow educators to revisit moments of learning in order to deepen future learning.


If you have gotten to the end of this post I imagine you really are a Harry Potter fan and a playful learning geek. So a challenge: what would the indicators of playful learning involve for Hogwarts? There is a lot of data to draw on ¬– seven books worth (well, six as Harry, Ron and Hermione  don’t return to classes in the final book). Have fun creating your own indicators. If you’re game, share your research by tagging #popHogwartsIndicators

In her research, Savhannah has tried to identify what playful learning looks and feels like in the magical world of Hogwarts.

And back to the real world. I want to end this post by applauding the playful learning that is taking place in laboratories around the globe, as scientists explore, experiment, imagine, and create, in order to make the magic wands needed to bring the pandemic to an end.