January 26, 2021

PoP USA Working Papers

Ben Mardell, Lynneth Solis, Katie Ertel

In order to promote playful learning in classrooms and schools, educators need to have clarity about what they are trying to promote: what playful learning looks and feels like. And while playful learning is universal, it is also shaped by culture. The form and content of playful learning needs to be adapted in order to be meaningful in specific contexts.

Motivated by these understandings, during the 2019-20 school year we explored what playful learning looks and feels like in six Boston-area schools. Collaborating with educators committed to creating engaging and meaningful learning experiences for their students, we observed in 17 classrooms—pre-kindergarten to 9th grade. We interviewed these teachers and their school leaders and students about their takes on playful learning.

As the following images convey, we found playful learning across grade levels and subject areas.

2nd graders creating a math game at the Cambridgeport School
1st graders exploring point of view at the Josiah Quincy School
7th graders preparing a presentation on racism in the U.S. at the Eliot School
5th graders from the Atrium School discussing math patterns on Zoom
A 4th grader writing a myth about the origins of sound at The Advent School
9th graders working on a language arts assignment at Codman Academy (photo courtesy Codman Academy)

The results of our research are shared in two working papers. The first paper, Empowering, meaningful, and joyful: Playful learning in six schools in the United States, addresses the question of what playful learning looks and feels like at the schools we collaborated with. At the heart of the paper are “indicators of playful learning” that map out the psychological states (“feels like”) as well as observable behaviors (“looks like”) of playful learning. To illustrate these indicators, we provide examples from a 2nd grade math lesson, a 1st grade English Language Learners classroom, online math instruction in 1st and 5th grade, and a 7th grade Reading and Writing class. The 7th grade example, where students are preparing a presentation about racism in the U.S., helps examine the question of what playful learning looks and feels like when students are investigating and advocating for change around serious topics. The paper also includes a description of our research methods, a review of the literature on playful learning in schools in the U.S., and a discussion of the relevance of the indicators model to other U.S. schools.

The second paper, More than one way: An approach to teaching that supports playful learning, shares an emerging idea that to activate and cultivate playful mindsets for all students, educators need to be flexible, spontaneous and open to surprise. They need to be playful, taking a more than one way approach to their teaching. The paper unpacks the teaching approach of more than way and provides several classroom examples - from early childhood, primary, and middle school - that illustrate how more than one way supports playful learning. The paper concludes with a discussion about how the idea of more than one way may fit into a pedagogy of play framework.

Both papers are available on the PoP page of the Project Zero website.