May 17, 2019

Families as Allies in the Construction of a Culture of Playful Learning in Schools

Catalina Rey Guerra, S. Lynneth Solis, and Ben Mardell

Today's post is co-authored by Lynneth and Ben (from the PoP team) and Catalina Rey-Guerra, researcher and project coordinator at the School of Education in Universidad de los Andes, Colombia. 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.

When principals and teachers start cultivating a culture of learning through play at school, one of the main challenges that arises is making families part of this process. Sometimes educators struggle to figure out how best to share the principles and co-construct practices of playful learning with families in order to build a common language and understanding. A Pedagogy of Play can help adults (teachers, principals, family members) to navigate the paradoxes between play and school while acting as a bridge between schools and families in exploring and engaging in playful learning both at home and at school.

Research on family engagement suggests a number of effective approaches to support educators in engaging families, which in turn can help cultivate a culture of playful learning in schools where educators, students, and families all work together. We suggest four approaches that can help connect families and schools through playful learning. We also propose a continuum that characterizes the extent to which this engagement takes place at home and at school.  

  1. Examining our beliefs. Understanding both educators’ and families’ attitudes and beliefs around play and playful learning, and how culture and previous experiences have shaped those beliefs, can be a good start for building a common vision of the role of play in learning. Finding agreement on how to support learning through play, and why playful learning is important for children’s learning and development, needs to be based on a respectful and empathetic understanding of the others’ perspective and expectations right from the beginning.
  2. Recognizing positive efforts on both sides of the bridge. In order to build the bridge and actually get to cross it, families and educators need to meet in the middle, recognizing both sides’ first priority is supporting what is best for children. In this sense, a playful participatory research approach can help to explore the different ways in which adults themselves might engage in play in their everyday lives at home or at school, and how this helps to create a playful environment for children. Starting from what is already happening and working at home and in the classroom recognizes the efforts on both sides.
  3. Communicating openly and regularly about playful learning. Ensuring a respectful ongoing communication where both sides are open to listening and sharing their knowledge supports learning through play. This requires various means of communication, consistency in exchanges, and creative approaches that help make the communication comfortable and even playful. It also means acknowledging the complexity of teaching and learning. Believing in learning through play does not mean play is appropriate for all learners in all situations. Rather than creating a false dichotomy between playfulness and learning goals, schools and families can embrace an attitude of “yes, and”—where both playfulness and learning goals are communicated and discussed openly.
  4. Making families part of the process. Recognizing families’ role as fundamental in co-constructing a culture of learning through play helps to find alignment among adults about the role of play in learning. This requires acknowledging that families’ knowledge is essential in the process of creating a culture of playful learning. For instance, doing “play biographies” where parents can reflect on what they played as kids and what they learned from this, or having the opportunity to suggest ways in which the curriculum can address some topics in a playful way.  

Continuum of Family Engagement in Playful Learning

Family engagement in playful learning can happen both at home and at school. The continuum of family engagement in playful learning (see Figure 1) is designed to show some of the different ways in which families can get involved in children’s learning process. On one side are home-based activities such as guided play or playful learning extensions where parents can help their children learn through playful activities designed by teachers and families, led by children, and scaffolded by parents or caregivers. On the other side are school-based activities that can range from parents attending or supporting classroom activities and suggesting new playful learning activities to teachers, to meeting with other families and teachers to engage in playful participatory research to explore how playful learning can be embedded throughout the school experience. In between are activities that can happen in “the middle of the bridge” such as meetings between teachers and parents, or meetings among parents to discuss ways to build and support a culture of playful learning.

Figure 1: Continuum of family engagement in playful learning (PL).

Our continuum suggests just some of the activities families can engage in across the home and school contexts. Each school community can generate other ideas and activities to try out specific to their school and cultural setting. In fact, one way to co-construct a culture of playful learning is through brainstorming together. Families can be allies in creating a culture where playful learning can thrive through the continuum of playful learning experiences.

“It’s wrong to think of play as the interruption of ordinary life. Consider instead playing as the underlying, always there, continuum of experiences…”

Richard Schechner, 1993