Every educator knows that children, especially those 4 to 7, learn a great deal through play. Harnessing that power for classroom learning can be tricky, though.
Teachers may, for example, hesitate to let go of control and allow students to follow their own learning paths; they may worry that the learning that takes place during play will be difficult to assess. And they must respond to growing institutional pressure to meet standards. But it is possible. Here are some suggestions for how to incorporate play in the classroom.
Playgrounds vs. Playpens
I often use the metaphor of “playgrounds versus playpens” to distinguish between learning experiences that are likely to have a wealth of benefits and those that are less useful. In my latest book, “Coding as a Playground,” I discuss how playpens keep children safe, but they also keep them isolated. They limit their options, eliminate creative opportunities, cut off any chance of real exploration and erect physical barriers to collaboration with other children.
Playgrounds, on the other hand, allow children a much greater deal of autonomy and choice. Playgrounds encourage kids to explore and play together, and create new games alone or collaborate with their peers.
Over my career, I’ve developed a theoretical framework called Positive Technological Development, which lays out six “playground” behaviors that can be promoted when engaging children with new technologies:
- Content creation;
- Choices of conduct;
- Collaboration; and
- Community building.
One quick rule of thumb for making sure your lesson includes at least some of the six Cs is to ask yourself if each student’s project—whether it be programming a robot to perform a dance or creating an art project based on a story—will look the same as their peers’ projects. If the answer is “yes,” your project may still include some of the six Cs, but it probably isn’t playful or much fun. Each child is unique and the resulting projects need to reflect that individuality of expression.
In a playground, every child’s sand castle looks different. That’s what you want. As a teacher, you want to think about creating an open-ended environment where you have a guiding theme, but that theme is flexible enough that children can create different things. Take KIBO, a robot kit I developed, for example. If they’re programming their robot to dance, they may all choose dances from around the world, but each students’ might be from a different culture. Similarly, in a lesson on animals, the class might create a zoo environment, but each child can create their own animal.
Think More Like an Art Teacher
Math teachers’ approach to teaching is effective given their subject matter, but when unleashing play in the classroom, teachers—even math teachers—may find it helpful to think of their class more as an art class than a math class.
Art teachers hand out appropriate materials and provide students with the freedom to explore their own passion. They offer something to look at for inspiration or an idea to contemplate or imagine. Rather than having students finish a worksheet showing their steps to come to the one correct answer, they help children manipulate all of these different materials to create their masterpiece. They help them revisit and revise their projects. They do not expect children to get it right the first time. They know that learning is about the process, not the final product.
The ultimate goal of classroom play is to help children express themselves. Each child expresses themselves in different ways. The teacher’s role is to facilitate that rather than direct it, hopefully even orchestrating it so that the students look to one another for help, instead of their teacher.
The Value of Failure
In this kind of classroom, you see a lot of failure, just as you would on the playground. At the social level, you see conflicts between kids who both want the same toy. If they fall off the monkey bars, you encourage them to jump up and try again. For kids to become resilient, creative, problem-solvers, they need to fail in a controlled, safe environment like a playground.
It’s what we call “hard fun.” For example, Mitch Resnick talks about how it's harder to learn how to play the piano than to learn how to play the stereo. If I press just one key on the stereo, music plays. If I learn to play the same tune on the piano, then play that tune for an audience of my peers, my joy is going to be much greater and the experience more memorable. To get children really invested in learning, they need an authentic experience—as well as an opportunity to share the fruits of their labor.
Evaluating play-based learning isn’t as simple as grading a worksheet or even an essay. It’s all about documenting student’s works through portfolios or other strategies. Older students can use design journals to make their learning visible. Young students may not be able to write about their projects yet, but they can use technology. They can create a video of their project, explaining what they did. They can show their code, if it was a programming project. Teachers can ask them questions focused on the process they followed rather than the product they created: what was hard, where did they ask for help, what would they do differently next time?
One of the best ways to get young students to demonstrate their learning is to invite family and friends to the classroom at the end of the unit to see their child’s project. Children will be excited to share their learning process, what they did, what worked and even what didn't work.
On the playground, when a child finally makes it across the monkey bars, they call out to their parents and say, “Look what I did!” They’re excited to show off what they accomplished and describe how they accomplished it. If teachers can inspire that kind of excitement in their students, then all the hard work that goes into creating a playful classroom is certainly worth it.