September 11, 2019

Playful learning with older kids

Ben Mardell

Many people’s association with playful learning involves young children. They acknowledge that learning through play has an important role in preschool and kindergarten, and maybe even first and second grade. But in middle and high school? Not so much.

Yet we know that the elements of play and playfulness—agency, curiosity, and the joy of learning—are just as important for older learners. So I was delighted that at this summer’s Project Zero Classroom, when I asked a group of 100 educators to share an example of playful learning from their classrooms, three middle and high school teachers raised their hands. Here is what they shared:

De'sa Fuller teaches 8th grade social studies at the Gardner Newman Middle School, part of the Troup County, Georgia public schools. To launch an investigation of the Declaration of Independence she pretended that she had found a letter and read it to her class. The letter was in the form of a “Dear John” break up note, with a salutation, a list of grievances, and a signature. After discussing the letter, she revealed that the form of the letter was taken from a document created by Thomas Jefferson et al. Surprised and intrigued, her learners were curious to learn more about the Declaration.
Gili Sherman teaches art at the Bernard Zell Anshe Amet Day School, a Jewish, Pre-K through 8th grade school in Chicago. She described a lesson that was part of a 5th grade unit on Henri Matisse, in which a goal was to understand how an obstacle can lead to creative problem-solving and innovation (late in his life, Matisse lost much of his fine motor skills). She asked her students to take off their shoes and challenged them to draw a flower with one of their feet. With a sharpie marker between their toes, there was much laughter as the students struggled to draw in this unusual manner. Gili then discussed with students how it felt for them to be limited in this way, and how Matisse must have felt to lose the ability to draw with his hands. In their end of year reflections, students referenced this experience as one of the highlights of art class, naming how they were better able to imagine how Matisse felt.
Coco Lawton teaches at the Nelson Mandela Magnet School, a public, grade 7 through 12 International Baccalaureate school in Santa Fe, New Mexico. As part of a 10th grade language and literature course, students engaged with 17th century French playwright Molière's classic Tartuffe. Tartuffe themes of love, the duties of parents and children, and religious hypocrisy, are all relevant to 21st century American teenagers. The play is also difficult to engage in. Coco has her students act out short sections of the play with playful parameters: 1) a person has to be part of the set; 2) only two actors on the stage at a time; and, 3) audience members must pick the most important word in the scene and shout it out. These playful provocations helped students dig deeper into the text (e.g., picking one word to shout had students debating what was the heart of a scene). With a greater ownership over the text, Coco’s students were able to write confidently and eloquently about the play and its themes.

These brief descriptions do not do justice to the richness of the curricula offered by De'sa, Gili, and Coco. My hope in sharing their examples is to expand our associations with playful learning beyond early childhood to include 5th, 8th, and 10th grade, and everything in between.

To learn more about these three teachers and their lessons, please feel free to contact them directly:

·     De'sa at

·     Gili at

·     Coco at