April 5, 2019

Using Play to Support Teacher Inquiry

Mara Krechevsky

What does playful learning look like for adults? At the International School of Billund (ISB), Project Zero (PZ) researchers have collaborated with teacher-researchers for the past four years on the Pedagogy of Play (PoP) Project, using an approach we call Playful Participatory Research (PPR). PZ researchers meet with small groups of teachers in monthly study groups to explore a topic of shared interest about supporting learning through play. Teachers collect documentation of student learning related to their questions to share and analyze with the study group. PPR also engages teachers in playful provocations to provoke creative thinking and investigate new ideas in the classroom, occasionally involving students as co-researchers along the way.

The following musings grow out of my work as the facilitator for the “Play and Academics” study group. I share these thoughts as part of an ongoing conversation my colleagues and I are having about how play can be used as a strategy to support adult learners.

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As the study group facilitator, I spent some time trying to find enticing materials to begin our first session of the year with a “playful provocation.” How could I engage and inspire the group as we launched our exploration of using play to teach academic learning goals? Although three volunteers used the materials in a skit with humorous results, I questioned whether they achieved my intended effect of inspiring the imaginations of the adult learners.

enticing (?) materials
study group skit

After the session, I was surprised to find that the majority of study group members reported in their reflections that they experienced the most choice, wonder, and delight (indicators of playful learning identified by PZ researchers and ISB teachers) when “coming up with a group question to guide their learning throughout the year.” I had put no time into planning how to make the question-generating part of the day playful. Moreover, coming up with a question is challenging intellectual work. The reflections included the following responses:

“When coming up with the guiding question, I found myself really wondering about the ideas that were discussed. We didn’t have answers to our questions, only some theories and observations.”

“When we were planning/creating our group question, we were sharing ideas, creating, focusing.”

“Discussing what the team question should be. Sparring with new colleagues.”

 What were the influences that led group members to deem “coming up with a group question” such a playful part of the day? Although I had not planned an explicitly “playful” component for the exercise, the invitation to develop team questions seemed to engender choice, wonder, and delight. Possible influences include:

     · The group had an authentic task: coming up with a question that would guide their individual and group learning for the year.

     · Each team had the freedom to choose where to complete the task.

study group teams working on questions inside...
...and outside

     · The conditions were in place for a great deal of self-directed learning:

             - a clear goal (that also served as a form of accountability): an articulated question which would be made public online

             - time to talk at length, which likely supported depth over breadth

             - tools to support the goal (e.g., a discussion protocol about choosing and honing a question)

             - occasional support and guidance from the PZ facilitator

             - choreography of individual and group learning: we started with time to develop individual questions, and ended by sharing both within and across study groups

             - being part of something bigger than oneself (PoP is a school-wide initiative)

             - perhaps a lingering good feeling from the very funny opening skit in response to the provocation

study group whole group share-out

A middle school student at ISB once told us that learning is rewarding when it’s hard and enjoyable. Perhaps planning for “minds-on” learning can entail as much play as planning for “hands-on” learning. I have found Opal School (Portland, Oregon) Director Susan MacKay’s claim that “play is a strategy for learning, not an activity we need to make time for” compelling and provocative. Perhaps playful learning exists on a continuum. Many of my PZ and ISB colleagues have facilitated study groups with such imaginative and playful provocations as going outside to build fairy houses, refashioning the study group space to resemble a café, or sending written feedback to each other on paper airplanes. Strategies for learning or activities to make time for? Or both?