May 4, 2021

Can Teaching and Learning During a Pandemic Be Playful?

Carole Geneix, guest author

Carole Geneix is 6-12 Director of Teaching and Learning at Washington International School (WIS), Faculty member at the Project Zero Classroom and the WIS Summer Institute for Teachers (WISSIT). She is also a Leadership team member of the Making Across the Curriculum project at WIS. She has been using Project Zero ideas for many years as a teacher and school administrator, and has presented Project Zero inspired workshops at national and international conferences.

Fourteen months ago, on March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic. Washington International School (Washington DC) pivoted to distance learning until that summer, started the year in “Distance Learning 2.0,” and opened in a hybrid model in October, 2020. What was lost? Not curriculum. Not social-emotional learning. Not deep thinking. What we lost was play. We could not plan for play. All sports and other extracurricular activities were cancelled, as well as performances, Middle School “minimesters”, trips abroad, evenings of demonstrations of learning. And when we came back, students and colleagues had to social distance at all times and could not share physical resources and supplies. Group work felt almost impossible. Yet, I saw small moments of play in classrooms that I would love to share with you, hoping this can continue to inspire you to include “micro-moments of play” in your teaching and learning.

The research done by the Pedagogy of Play project team from Project Zero (at Harvard Graduate School of Education) with the International School of Billund (Denmark) determined that “playful learning” in their community was at the intersection of CHOICE, WONDER and DELIGHT. Each category has descriptors that capture what students do and feel when they have CHOICE, WONDER about something, and experience DELIGHT, together.

While these indicators are culturally and contextually determined, they were helpful to me to understand "micro and mini" examples of playful learning I have seen in WIS classes, meetings and workshops in a year of “teaching and learning during a pandemic”:

Using emojis and mood boards to discuss topics and emotions (indicators: being spontaneous, being silly, improvising) 😀😀😀

Having debates in a hybrid model, with teams at home interacting with teams in class. Judges attended the session and declared a winner. It felt like play, because after each team’s argument students would go back to their breakout rooms or physical group to prepare for a counter-argument. This is a good example of a typical activity that was not affected by Distance Learning or the Hybrid Model. In fact, the “secrecy” of the breakout rooms probably made it more fun for students to “plot” their responses.

Having oral presentations using costumes and props and, for the students at home, filters and backgrounds to “travel” to different places and times.

As an exit ticket, having students draw a concept or key term of the lesson, and having other students guess what the term was (indicators: having and sharing ideas, imagining, focusing attention)
Using objects to express complex ideas metaphorically (indicators: moving around, expressing excitement, smiling and laughing)
In this workshop, we asked teachers to find an object around them that represented their philosophy of teaching
Making something (big or small) to express your ideas (moving around, having and sharing ideas, creating). The making can happen physically using materials around you or virtually, individually or in a group.
This “making” can include designing or redesigning a picture using a slide deck where you pre-selected some images and symbols that students can use to make a new image together (thank you Sheya from Project Zero for the idea!). Here is an example. Feel free to use it!

Please note that the Pedagogy of Play, if somewhat related, is different from the concept of gamification, which is an approach that uses video game design elements to increase student motivation and engagement.

Playful learning can also be very comprehensive and touch upon serious topics. The following 11th grade Language and Literature unit on the Migration Crisis in Europe (taught by Anne Leflot from Washington International School) explored the novel Eldorado by Laurent Gaudé. The goal was to understand the complexity of the current migration crisis in the Mediterranean Sea. Students used “thinking routines” such as Parts, People, Interactions from Agency by Design and Peel The Fruit from the Visible Thinking framework to deconstruct the main aspects of the novel and the migration system that the author implicitly denounces. They then created board games that aimed at developing understanding and empathy. Here are a few screenshots of the process:

Using the Routine “Peel the Fruit” from Visible Thinking to unpack the novel’s meaning
students designing the game

I hope you will find these indicators of Playful Learning and examples useful to design upcoming lessons that build upon CHOICE, WONDER and DELIGHT!