April 24, 2020

Engaging Families in a Culture of Playful Learning in Schools: A Theory of Change

Catalina Rey Guerra and S. Lynneth Solis

Today's post is co-authored by Catalina Rey-Guerra, a doctoral student at Boston College, and Lynneth Solis (from the PoP team). Catalina's research focuses on the reciprocal interactions between children and their families, teachers, and learning environments, while searching for protective and promotive factors of early development.

Last May, we wrote a blog post about engaging families as allies in cultivating cultures of playful learning in schools. For the last few months, we have been exploring these ideas further to articulate a conceptual model to help guide efforts to engage families in playful learning. Although most of the thinking on this topic occurred for us long before the COVID-19 crisis, our current reality underscores that home-school partnerships are paramount for creating meaningful and seamless learning experiences for students. Today, as so many children are learning at home, we acknowledge, more than ever, the importance of families engaging in and promoting learning through play at home while being supported by schools and teachers. Here we discuss how schools can begin to articulate their efforts to engage families. Although some of this may not be easily implemented at this time, we believe that planning for family engagement proactively can help schools face the daily as well as unexpected challenges of creating and maintaining cultures of playful learning.  

The process of engaging families in learning through play is neither an evident nor generic one. Family engagement varies across cultures and contexts and involves several efforts and actions in a variety of settings including, homes, schools, and other community spaces. Thus, successful family engagement in playful learning can occur along a continuum of exchanges where educators and families, together, examine beliefs about playful learning, recognize positive efforts taking place at home and at school, communicate openly about plans and expectations, and engage in co-constructing activities that foster playful learning.

To push our thinking about how to practically capture both, the specificities of school contexts as well as the commonalities in the process of engaging families, we propose a theory of change based on academic literature and our experiences in schools. Theories of change (TOC) are useful tools that help us link the efforts and activities being made in a program, intervention, or curriculum to the intended outputs and outcomes. Having a broader picture of why and for whom schools are trying to engage families in the culture of playful learning, ultimately helps all stakeholders involved to improve their understanding of the program or intervention and, thus, make more effective decisions. This TOC is a hypothesized model that can be used by educators and researchers to ideate, examine, and reimagine efforts to engage families in building a culture of playful learning both inside and outside of schools.


We suggest a number of inputs as the basic resources that schools need in order to start the process of engaging families in a culture of playful learning. To begin, a playful mindset on the part of educators and school leadership is paramount. If families are to be engaged in the process of creating a culture of playful learning in schools, this playfulness needs to be modeled by educators who share ideas and support families in extending the playfulness to the home. This is further supported by having avenues for communication with families--whether it’s through online platforms or face-to-face meetings--that allow for the exchange of ideas and open discussions that go both ways. A school also needs to have policies and curricular guidelines that support playful learning and make it integral to what is communicated with families about the educational process in the school. Finally, this can all be guided by engaging as a school community in discussing and generating a set of indicators of playful learning that help the school community plan for, identify, and reflect on playful learning experiences (for examples of indicators, see ones that emerged in three schools in South Africa and at the International School of Billund). Of course, there are other inputs that schools may employ in this process; the important thing is to identify what these resources are so that they can be leveraged in engaging families in playful learning.


There are many ways in which schools can engage families in playful learning. The continuum of activities presented in our TOC (and further elaborated in our earlier post) serves the purpose of portraying the wide range of possibilities of how families can engage in a culture of playful learning. On one side, family engagement involves facilitating play at home to extend the learning. On the other side, engagement in playful learning at the school can result from families engaging in playful participatory research with educators to design curricula and playful learning experiences together.

In between, the two sides of the continuum are constantly interacting to shape and support learning through play. Teachers can send home playful activities for the families to engage in with their children or they can ask families to share playful activities they do at home. Some spaces such as meetings between teachers and families and parent universities are activities that bridge the two environments and create opportunities for families and educators to share their ideas about playful learning and generate best practices together.


Activities that are written into and planned for in a school’s strategic plans receive attention and resources. As a result of work with families, it is essential to identify the activities and practices that are successful in fostering a culture of playful learning and articulate how they will be carried out strategically. These plans can be revisited on a yearly or quarterly basis to adjust as goals or priorities shift for the school community.

To formalize exchanges between schools and families, it is helpful to continue to leverage platforms that allow for reciprocal communication. Whether it’s an online sharing platform or scheduled calls home, planning for formal spaces where educators and families can post ideas, provide feedback, or pose questions about playful learning can help the flow of communication.

Having shared language and values is important in creating cultures of playful learning. As a result of activities with families, schools can generate tools and protocols to support discussions about the beliefs and expectations about playful learning. This can take the shape of value-sort activities, discussion starters, and play observation protocols to use at home and at school.

An ongoing calendar of playful learning events and activities that brings families and educators together in person or remotely can be very effective in generating the time and space for ongoing conversations around the challenges and opportunities of playful learning at home and at school.

Short-term outcomes:

In the short term, the work with families and development of outputs to help guide family engagement in a culture of playful learning can lead to revisiting and revising indicators of playful learning with families to reflect the common language that has emerged. The activities and outputs may also lead to more open and consistent communication between schools and families, sharing playful learning practices with each other. The hope is that over time, schools are more strategic in the efforts they employ to engage families in playful learning.

Long-term outcomes:

Ultimately, efforts to engage families can result in schools having a shared culture of playful learning with families, where all stakeholders are committed to the maintenance of playful learning experiences at home and at school. In bridging the school and home environment, students and families may also demonstrate a playful mindset. In addition, families and students may have strengthened relationships at home and students will experience enhanced learning and well-being as a result of concerted efforts by schools and families.  

Importantly, the processes represented in this TOC are cyclical in that there are feedback loops that feed into each other. Each year or at the end of each term, inputs can be revisited based on outputs, short-term, and long-term outcomes, and activities can be updated and redesigned based on what schools and families have learned from the engagement with each other.

The approaches illustrated in this TOC seem more relevant now than ever, given the current situation in which families and schools are trying to build strong partnerships to face the challenge of facilitating learning at home and provide children with meaningful and enjoyable learning experiences. In the current COVID-19 situation, and any other situations we may face in the future, having a network of support and shared understandings where families and educators are working collaboratively to create a culture of playful learning, could be key to successfully coping and adjusting to challenging times.