June 30, 2023

Building engagement: “Low floors, High ceilings and Wide walls” in playful learning environments

Fabián Dulcé, Isabel Tejada, Paula García, Jimena Alviar, & Martha Ramirez


Welcome to our third post of this mini-series on playful learning in Higher Education settings! You will find a Spanish version of this post here.

In our previous posts we described the process we navigated to come up with our own indicators of playful learning in higher education: Engagement, Challenge and Feedback. Such indicators have been crucial elements to design and implement playful classes in which students are placed in the center of their processes for meaningful learning experiences. 

Our approach in coming up with these indicators has been informed mainly by two theories. On the one hand, they not only portray culture-specific aspects from our settings, which is a key element to consider, but also each one of them adds up to consolidate a flow state in our students’ learning experience based on Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s framework where: goals are clear, feedback is immediate, the skills match the challenges, concentration is deep, problems are forgotten, control is possible, self-consciousness disappears, the sense of time is altered, and the experience is autotelic (it is worth it on its own). On the other hand, we aim at fostering the characteristics of a growth mindset in our students; we do so by implementing Carol Dweck’s theory. In a nutshell, she claims that there are five situations which can trigger either a fixed or a growth mindset response or behavior: challenges, obstacles, effort, criticism, and success of others. We can connect any of these five situations to playful learning practices, thus the importance of constructing a growth mindset environment. By identifying how these daily-life situations affect us, we can embrace them as valuable learning experiences. 

This post will focus on the first indicator: Engagement. In our previous post, we stated that Engagement was the most observable indicator since, as teachers, we can actually see when students are involved and present in the tasks we design. We also described it as the disposition students activate in order to put effort and energy into their learning processes making use of their cognitive and metacognitive skills (see Blumenfeld et al.’s work).   

Let’s start by clarifying what we understand by engagement so that we can identify what it looks and feels like within playful and active teaching experiences. 

Understanding engagement

Engagement can be the heart and soul of a playful learning experience. It fills students with the energy, interest and willingness to put into using their skills and knowledge. In this line, based on Shernoff’s framework, engagement appears as a multidimensional state that anchors positive emotions, behaviors and cognitions, which supports learning to provide students with beneficial outcomes in terms of academic achievement (See Macklem’s work). Moreover, engagement requires a hands-on/minds-on setting that provides opportunities for students to be immersed in the task and in a state of flow that allows them to self-direct their learning, to stay curious,  to make use of their cognitive skills, and to solve problems on their own ( See Zosh, et al.). In other words, engagement is the extent to which individuals are involved, motivated, and committed to a particular activity or task.

Low Floors and High Ceilings for engagement

The concept of "low floors and high ceilings'' in playful learning refers to the idea of creating learning environments that are both accessible and challenging for all learners. A low floor means that the initial level of difficulty of a task or learning activity is set low enough that everyone can access it. In contrast, a high ceiling provides opportunities for deeper exploration and extension beyond the basic level. In addition, we embrace the concept of Wide Walls by Mitchel Resnick so as to provide students with multiple “pathways from floors to ceilings”. 

As such, we have experienced that as we design low floors, high ceilings and wide walls in our playful pedagogical environments, we create engaging and tinkering opportunities for everyone. 

What engagement looks like

To foster student engagement, we've identified key elements that can be observed. We've noticed that learning through engagement is more likely to occur when two or more of these elements come together. Therefore, in an active teaching approach like PoP, we aim to create a learning environment where students experience these emotions and actions simultaneously. For example, focused attention combined with interaction or decision-making leads to meaningful learning. By recognizing and promoting these factors mindfully, we enhance engagement and create a favorable atmosphere for growth:

Reflection involves taking time to consider and analyze one's own thoughts, feelings, and actions related to a particular topic or experience.  Even though it is a cognitive process, it can be made visible. This might take the form of writing, engaging in a conversation with others, sharing thoughts and ideas, asking questions, or participating in structured activities such as brainstorming, mind mapping, or role-playing.
Focused attention involves concentrating one's mental energy on a specific task or concept. In a learning environment, this might include activities such as listening carefully to a lecture, reading a textbook, or practicing a new skill with close attention to detail. This might take the form of puzzle-solving, memory games, sketchnoting, musical and physical activities. Even though focused attention is a necessary component of engagement, it is not sufficient on its own. Here a sense of connection, purpose, and meaning in what is being done is key.
Decision-making involves reflection to prioritize and make thoughtful and informed decisions. Playful learning requires making choices, approaching problems, and completing tasks. Thus, decision-making may be facilitated through structured playful activities such as board games, escape rooms, breakout edus, serious games, creative projects, or simulations.
Movement can help students to engage their bodies as well as their minds. This might involve activities such as dancing, yoga, or other forms of physical activity, or more structured activities such as role-playing, improv, scavenger hunts, or simulations.
Participation involves investment/active participation and contribution from students to a target activity. This might involve asking and answering questions, working on group projects, or participating in class discussions or any of the previously mentioned activities.

Collaboration involves working together with others towards a common goal. In a learning environment, collaboration may be facilitated through activities such as team building activities, role-playing games, escape rooms, group projects, design competitions or hackathons.
Negotiation involves finding common ground and reaching agreements between different parties. In a learning environment, negotiation may be required when working on group projects, resolving conflicts, or negotiating deadlines. In a playful environment this looks like mock trials, business simulations, role-play exercises and negotiation games. 
Interaction involves communication and engagement between individuals towards a common goal. In a learning environment, interaction may occur through activities that involve two or more people. Within a playful perspective, all activities with two or more participants generally require interaction to take place. 

What engagement feels like 

Enjoyment is a positive emotional state that arises from engaging in an activity, experience, or interaction. It involves feelings of pleasure and satisfaction; it is also a state of optimal experience (make sure to check Csikszentmihalyi's flow theory) when an individual is fully participating in a challenging yet achievable activity.
Enthusiasm is characterized by a fervent and lively approach towards a given task. It is accompanied by a profound interest in learning, as well as willingness and eagerness to delve deeper.
Inspiration is a state of excitement, motivation, and creativity that learners experience when exposed to new ideas, concepts, or experiences. It encourages learners to explore beyond their comfort zone and strive for personal growth and development.
Being at ease involves feeling comfortable and relaxed, which enables stress-free learning experiences. It requires a sense of emotional security and psychological safety that encourages students to take risks, ask questions, be vulnerable, and make mistakes without fearing negative consequences or judgment.
Confidence involves having a positive self-assessment and a belief in one's ability to acquire and apply knowledge effectively. When learners have confidence, they are more likely to take risks, challenge themselves, and actively engage in the learning process.
Curiosity in learning is the natural tendency to explore and seek out new information and experiences. It encompasses the desire to understand the world around us, ask questions, and challenge assumptions. Curiosity is at the heart of tinkering. 
Belonging involves a sense of connection, community, and inclusion. When learners develop a sense of belonging, they feel accepted and valued and are more likely to engage actively in the learning process and collaborate with others, leading to greater motivation and persistence in the face of challenges.
Pride is the feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction when learners successfully acquire new knowledge or skills. It involves a positive self-assessment, personal fulfillment, and motivation to continue learning. It leads to a positive attitude towards learning and higher engagement and persistence in the face of challenges.

In sum, engagement involves the disposition of students to put effort and energy into their learning processes, making use of their cognitive and metacognitive skills. It requires a hands-on/minds-on setting that provides opportunities for students to be immersed in the task and in a state of flow that allows them to experience positive emotions, self-direct their learning, stay curious, and solve problems on their own. Designing low floors, high ceilings and wide walls in playful pedagogical environments captivates students and creates engaging opportunities for everyone. Engaged students are characterized by their reflection, focused attention, decision-making, movement, participation,  collaboration, negotiation, and interaction. 

Stay tuned for our next posts on challenge and feedback, our remaining indicators for playful learning in Higher Ed!

Ideas to foster engagement

To illustrate what engagement looks like and feels like in our classes, we will present some ideas and strategies. 


Class: E-learning for English as Foreign Language contexts
E-learning trends
Undergraduate students of BA of Bilingualism 

I adapted Shark Tank, one of the most popular realities in the entrepreneurship world, to our E-learning class to challenge my students to be innovative and creative when describing the characteristics of E-learning trends, and to be critical when making instructional decisions in a specific educational context. For this learning experience, I told students they were in charge of improving the English classes of our BA of Bilingualism program by implementing a specific e-learning trend, and that one of their proposals would be chosen as the innovative solution our University needed. To explain that context, I created a video that set the storyline of our session, which resulted as one of the most engaging and motivating factors due to its personalization! Then, by means of a specific checklist and scaffolding, teams worked to design and present their Pitch to the “shark” (who was me); I asked them several questions for them to argue their proposals. Students were deeply engaged in the design, pitch and argumentation processes of this experience. At the end, teams received “badges” to reward their efforts in terms of creativity, innovation, selling attitude, design skills, etc.


Growth Mindset for leadership and communication
The role of grit in mindset
Leaders of different companies in Colombia
I used origami in this class with three purposes: a) as a means to write down a personal leadership objective, b) connect the act of doing origami with perseverance (a component of grit) and c) embed storytelling in the classroom. Students were asked to write a goal in an origami paper. Then, they used that paper to create the body of a koi fish. Next, they wrote smaller objectives that would lead to the fulfillment of the goal in another origami paper. Afterwards, they used that paper to create the fish tail (which is more difficult). Finally they were told the tale of the Koi fish that became a dragon and reflected on its connection to grit.


Class: Interculturality, language, and education

Students: Undergraduate students from all majors

Theme: Intercultural awareness through the analysis of musical preferences

I use songs in this activity called What does music say about me? with the purpose of promoting self-awareness by analyzing the musical preferences of others. I ask each student to write down their top three favorite songs, which are then anonymously posted on a Padlet wall in separate columns. Then, I create random groups, and within these each student assumes a different role, either as a DJ, a composer, or an audience member. Each group discusses the emotions that the songs trigger and describes them using Brackett’s mood meter. They also consider whether they know the song (or the artist) and imagine the type of person who would have it as a favorite. This activity fosters diversity appreciation, enthusiasm, trust, respect, and curiosity. The activity concludes with a reflection exercise, where students gain self-knowledge by recognizing how their experiences, assumptions, and prejudices shape their interpretation of others' preferences, feelings, and behaviors. 


Class: Multilingual learning and teaching trajectories 

Theme: Using all the students’ linguistic repertoire while learning additional languages. 

Students: In-service language teachers at the master’s level. 

One strategy I use to engage my students with the learning goal and the proposed activities is to make sure they find a personal connection to the class concepts; in this case, to reflect on the relevance of recognizing, valuing, and using everyone’s sets of language variations, students drew their own bodies and represented where they felt the languages they speak and teach. During the class discussion, they reported sensations, ideas, experiences, and ideas related to how they have experienced their own languages.



Class: Innovation, Leadership & Engineering Design (undergraduate elective course).

Theme: Design Thinking.

Students: Undergraduate students of Mechanical Engineering.

A typical engineering quiz designed apparently to review some concepts about the design thinking process. In reality it was intended to playfully determine how students formulate their strategy for solving the quiz. The quiz consists of 2 parts and each part awards 50% of the final grade. Students may use any help they want (notes, internet, etc.). The teacher also introduces students to the help of a good friend named Orlo, an ‘enlightened’ and ‘magical being’ (like an oracle) who knows everything and is willing to quickly tell whoever emails him the answer to the second part of the quiz. Most students do not trust Orlo and do not write to him (90% of the class on average), but those who risk writing to him get surprised because they receive the correct answer within 10 seconds (Orlo is a programmed email with automatic response). The purpose of the quiz is not only to assess knowledge but to identify what kind of decisions they make as engineers when emergent information appears in an agile problem-solving process. Debriefing with students is impactful because they think that the help offered by the teacher is to distract them so that they do poorly on the quiz. The students like the experience with Orlo so much that they continue to write to “him” to tinker and ask any kind of questions. Engagement is so good that they have even asked questions about the meaning of life, or about doubts from other courses!

About the authors

Fabián Dulcé is an edupreneur and a highly curious lifelong learner. Passionate about making things different in education; enjoys integrating game and lean-agile thinking to create innovative learning experiences. Since 2013 he’s been working in varied educational institutions in Colombia as a trainer, lecturer, researcher and consultant.

Isabel Tejada is a Professor at the School of Education at Los Andes University (Bogotá). She's a passionate and playful life-long learner, growth mindsetter, and intercultural educator.

Paula García teaches future teachers at the School of Education at Universidad de Los Andes, Colombia. She has devoted her life to learning through a number of approaches, and found playful learning one of  the most challenging ways to make sure learning happens and stays.

Jimena Alviar is a proud and passionate English teacher who has devoted more than 10 years to exploring engaging and playful learning scenarios. Her curious and committed teaching spirit has allowed her to apply and navigate different teaching approaches with a varied range of students from preschool to higher education.

Martha Ramirez is a teacher educator, academic consultant and researcher specialized in flipped learning and growth mindset. Throughout her teaching career, she has sought ways to teach outside the box: playful learning has been one of the key approaches she uses in every teaching scenario she can.