January 10, 2020

PoP USA: Playful learning in a new context

Katie Ertel & Lynneth Solis

One of the Pedagogy of Play core beliefs is that learning through play is universal and shaped by culture. Although children (and adults) around the world can learn through play, the nature of their play is shaped by cultural priorities and practices. In our research with educators and students at the International School of Billund in Denmark and in three diverse schools in South Africa, we have explored how they describe and practice playful learning in their context, and how our findings in these different settings relate to existing research. Together with these educators, we have identified specific indicators of playful learning that speak to their local educational experiences. We believe that working with schools to surface local expressions of playful learning is critical in honoring educators’ and students’ voices as they make sense of their playful learning experiences. This academic year, we are excited to be working in yet another context, in our own backyard. PoP is at play in the United States!

With a research method similar to the one we used in South Africa, we aim to find out what playful learning looks and feels like in schools in the U.S. In South Africa, we developed a qualitative research approach to investigate what playful learning felt and looked like across three schools. We worked to understand the academic and cultural context at each school and created a model of playful learning indicators (i.e., Ownership, Curiosity, and Enjoyment) based on classroom observations, teacher and principal interviews, and student focus groups.

In the U.S., we have begun working with several schools in the Boston area, conducting classroom observations and interviewing teachers and school leaders. We are already catching a glimpse of what playful learning might be possible in U.S. schools: 

Suzie is a second grade teacher in a local public school. We recently spent a few hours in her classroom when students were working on pieces that addressed the question,“Why would someone like to live on your imaginary island?” The students had created maps of their own islands, using their knowledge of different landforms, water formations, biomes, and climates they had learned about in prior science units, and were now working to prepare a brochure to welcome people to their island and persuade them to visit. The assignment included a checklist of tasks that needed to be completed as part of the project, as well as optional tasks, such as creating a postcard of the island.

One student’s island

After Suzie led a short opening for the lesson, students worked independently for the remaining 45 minutes of the period. The students worked individually and in pairs, choosing where in the classroom to sit—at tables, sprawled on the floor, in floor chairs with lap desks. Some worked on computers to type their island description, while others worked on their draft on paper. The noise in the room varied from relatively quiet to an excited buzz. Some students hummed and sang as they worked.

Suzie and her intern, Mary, supported student-directed learning, giving students freedom and choice, while occasionally redirecting them. Students conferred with each other about their work and asked questions of the teachers. There were smiles and some laughter too, and of course, occasional comments or side conversations. What stood out in this period, however, was students’ engagement in their work and the freedom they had while keeping on task.

Island project checklist

Both the topic and the manner in which students engaged with the assignment felt playful. Students had the opportunity to use their imaginations and think creatively about what could be on an island, while using knowledge related to the learning goals of the project. They exercised their self-regulation and executive function skills as they planned their writing and focused on the assignment, while working in a flexible and comfortable class environment. And this was all in service of employing their science knowledge and practicing their writing skills.

The playful learning we observed in Suzie’s classroom appeared to be promoted by both, the engaging activity of creating an imaginary island and an encouraging classroom culture with clear routines and supportive structures. We look forward to delving more deeply into this interplay between assignments and classroom structures in playful learning, in Suzie’s classroom and in other classrooms around the Boston area.  

One student’s typed island brochure text