January 31, 2019

What we believe about learning through play in schools

photo courtesy of International School of Billund

Play and playfulness have caught the attention of educators around the world. Play and playfulness in schools?! As we struggle to prepare students for a quickly changing world filled with uncertainty, the risk-taking, imagining, inventing and learning from mistakes that learning through play fosters are essential dispositions that schools must promote. The Pedagogy of Play (PoP) project offers guidance and inspiration for educators asking the question: how can we bring more play and playfulness into our classrooms and schools? We are working on a framework that supports teachers and school leaders in creating cultures where playful learning thrives. We launch our popatplay blog by sharing six core beliefs about playful learning in schools:   

1.     Play is a core resource for learning. When people play they are engaged, relaxed, and challenged—states of mind highly conducive to learning. Through play, children and adults try out ideas, test theories, experiment with symbol systems, explore social relations, take risks, and reimagine the world. They develop agency, empathy, and their imaginations. They learn to deal with uncertainty. While not all learning has to be playful, nor does every moment of playfulness involve significant learning, a close look at play and playfulness reveals numerous emotional, social, and cognitive features that can powerfully abet learning. Sometimes these features help to make learning feel fun and enjoyable; sometimes they help learning proceed in more engaging and exploratory ways.

2.     Learning through play in schools involves play with a purpose. Schools are places where young people come to learn the important skills, knowledge, and dispositions needed to be contributing members of their communities. While we are big supporters of unstructured, child-directed “free-play,” a pedagogy of play in schools involves play with a purpose, bringing together educators’ learning goals and students’ natural ways of learning through play. Playful learning situates curricular goals, content, and activities within a larger purpose of helping learners understand, explore, and shape their world. 

3.     The paradoxes between play and school complicate bringing playful learning and teaching together. Bringing play and school together is not easy or straightforward because of the paradoxical relationship between play and school. For example, play is timeless…players lose themselves in play. School, on the other hand, is timetabled. Play can be chaotic, messy, and loud; schools aspire to be places of order. In play children are in charge, while at school the agenda is generally set by adults. Play involves risks, whereas in school we aim to keep children safe. Why are these paradoxes? Because both sides of these statements are true: we want children to explore and experiment and we don’t want them to get hurt. Creating a culture of playful learning requires inquiry-oriented teaching, and ongoing conversations among a school faculty to navigate these paradoxes.

4.     Learning through play is a mindset with playfulness as the active ingredient. Learning through play involves students and teachers approaching learning with a playful mindset. Beyond integrating a game or activity into a lesson, embracing a pedagogy of play means activating mindsets where learners and teachers frame and reframe experiences as occasions to be curious, creative, and imaginative, and to find joy in exploring the “what if…” space of learning and play. While games and activities can help encourage these mindsets, learning through play requires more than isolated curricular moves. Playfulness and having a playful disposition (for learner and teacher) are active ingredients for learning through play.

5.     Play and playfulness thrive in supportive school cultures. Playful learning is rarely a solo endeavor. The ability to learn through play thrives in supportive school cultures for students and teachers. While small steps can be taken to bring more playful learning to a classroom, sustained change depends on developing a school culture of trust among children and adults. While there are various entry points to begin developing a culture where playful learning thrives, a pedagogy of play involves rethinking the relationships between teachers and students and a re-evaluation of what learning comprises. In addition, a culture of playful learning for children requires a culture of playful learning for adults­­. In such schools educators are supported in taking risks, trying out ideas, and tinkering with their practice. With a playful approach to their practice, educators engage in responsible experimentation.

6.     Learning through play is universal and shaped by culture. People around the world play and have the ability to learn from that play. At the same time, play is a cultural construct. Whom children play with, how they play, where and when they play, and what age they should stop playing (if ever!) are determined by cultural contexts. The form and content of playful learning therefore varies depending on the context.

That’s it for our first post. If you are curious about these ideas, stay with us! In future posts the PoP team will dive deeper into some of these beliefs. We will share practices that contribute to creating and nurturing a playful learning culture along with examples of playful learning in school. Guest bloggers will share their perspectives of learning through play. We invite you to share your thinking about this and future posts--to play with us and build understandings of how playful learning can thrive in schools.