February 14, 2020

Key practices for playful learning

From the onset of our research we have been investigating teaching practices and strategies that promote cultures of playful learning in classrooms and schools. If the indicators of playful learning describe the what of playful learning, the practices and teaching strategies describe the how. Our aim is to map out generative and actionable teaching practices that are accessible and inspirational for educators from early childhood through middle school (and perhaps even beyond). Our theory-building process draws on:

Teacher research conducted by study groups of educators at the International School of Billund (Denmark)
Classroom observations and interviews with educators at Esikhisini Primary, Nova Pioneer Ormando and Bryandale schools in South Africa as well as the International School of Billund
A review of innovative pedagogies, including the work of educators from Reggio Emilia (Italy), Opal School (Portland, Oregon, USA), Anji Play (China), other Project Zero research (e.g., Making Learning Visible project and Agency byDesign), and work by other educators around the world

Using a lens of play and playfulness, we are mapping the terrain of playful learning practices. Feedback from colleagues, including readers of this blog, is invaluable in our iterative process.  As we continue to play with ideas and engage in further research (including our current work in the US), the organization of these practices very well may change and/or additional strategies will likely be added. Below is the current version of our ideas.

A pedagogy of play involves bringing play and playfulness into many aspects of school life: teaching, learning, assessment, the physical environment, and school culture. We have identified five core practices (with associated teaching strategies to come in future blog posts) to promote a sense of choice and ownership, curiosity and wonder, and delight and enjoyment in student learning. Often deployed in combination, the PoP practices include:

Enable experimentation and risk-taking

Evolutionary biologists believe that play evolved to provide a safe way to try out new behaviors and ideas. School exists, in part, as a safe place for children to experiment, make mistakes, and learn from failure. How do we promote mindsets where children relish trying out ideas and not give up when the going gets hard?

Establish the conditions for learning with one another

Feelings of playful learning are often activated and sustained by being part of a group. Playful learning is enhanced when players exchange, build on, or disagree with each other’s ideas. Structure activities with social components to enrich learning.

Engage the imagination to explore ideas

Engaging the imagination brings students into the what if space of learning. Here, learners explore, create and invent, generate new ideas, and take different perspectives.

Encourage learners to lead their own learning

Taking playful learning seriously means tipping the balance of responsibility for learning toward learners. Look for opportunities to turn things over to students, letting them make appropriate decisions about important aspects of learning, and at the same time, supporting them in this process. This involves making plans and a willingness to modify plans.

Embrace the range of emotions play produces

Play produces a range of emotions: enjoyment, satisfaction and ownership, as well as frustration and even anger. Deep learning involves this same range of emotions. Design learning experiences to elicit a range of emotions. Because what is playful for one isn’t necessarily playful for all, strive to provide more than one way for students to learn playfully.

photos courtesy International School of Billund

Over the next few months we will be sharing further thoughts about these practices, including introducing the associated teaching strategies. Preview: our next post is about a college professor who uses some of these practices in his introductory calculus course.