November 22, 2019

Aligning message and medium: playful teaching for playful learning

Jen Ryan

How to open a national seminar aimed at exploring playful teaching and learning in schools? With a group song, of course:

A few weeks ago, about 60 professors and leaders from all of Denmark's professional colleges -- institutions training the next generation of educators -- gathered in Vejle, Denmark for the Playful Learning Seminar. They were continuing a multi-year exploration of the role playful learning has in inspiring creative and curious students. At the same time, this initiative provides a space for educators and partnering researchers from LEGO Foundation to reflect on the value of aligning medium and message: if playful learning is a goal, then playful teaching ought to be a pathway to that goal. Move over, PowerPoints.

PoP researcher Ben Mardell embraces a playful opener that set the tone for the Seminar

If you’ve been following this blog, you’ll know that our research project is focused not just on learning through play, but on a pedagogy of play. We think about what it means to have a whole school playful culture -- whole school communities that embrace play at all levels of decision making: in hiring and on-boarding new teachers; in evaluating policies and rules; in finding opportunities for playfulness in curricula, professional development, parent-teacher conferences, hallway transitions, and even assessments.

Introducing playfulness in schools can happen one moment or classroom at a time. But effecting and sustaining change often requires a more systemic approach. Teacher training provides a great avenue for this.  The Playful Learning Seminar is designed in a cascade model, where participants are ambassadors, experimenting and exploring with playful learning and design, returning to their colleges to test out ideas, and coming back together to reflect with researchers and colleagues. It's a kind of playful participatory research that holds a lot of parallels to our work.

We were delighted to be invited to the November Seminar, where Ben and our teacher-researcher partners from International School of Billund (Charlotte Andersen, Deputy Head of School, and Ole Stahlfest, Middle Years Science and Design teacher) presented our research and some emergent ideas. We shared pictures of practice that illustrate playful learning. We shared strategies (more on this coming soon!) for in-service and pre-service teachers to begin thinking about incorporating play as an approach to their teaching. And together we considered the importance of adopting an inquiry stance and playful mindset when teaching, so that learning goals for students align with teaching practices.

At the close of our session, we asked participants to brainstorm some exercises for bringing more playful teaching into their classes. They shared ideas and, as one participant explained, left thinking about how to model experiences so that students get a feeling that “we are here together, learning together...we need to surprise each other.”  

As an observer of this session, I was particularly taken with this idea of surprise. We've come to understand that surprise can be an element of learning through play. But what might it mean to have authentic moments of surprise for the teacher as well? What does it mean to have the inclination to teach playfully, and how might this be cultivated? Where are the opportunities for teachers to take risks and to experiment? I suspect this may be fodder for future blog posts. And maybe we should all open more learning experiences with a song.