Play-based Learning: Can We Make a Game for This?

person about to catch four dices
By Rachel Hill

After stumbling across the book, The Playful Classroom by Jed Dearybury and Julie Jones, I was immediately consumed by the idea of play-based learning in the classroom. This educational framework quickly became an important professional development focus for this school year. 

Games as a teaching tool is not a new concept to me. During my time as an educator, I have been drawn to the idea of gamifying lessons as much as possible. Games make things more memorable and fun, and I’ve seen firsthand the way students can get consumed by the game as they tackle rigorous academic challenges. Meanwhile, deep learning happens amidst all the fun. 

For example, in previous years, before choosing a side for an opinion writing prompt, I loved to set up debates for my students. By adding a squishy ball, we turned the debate into a game, where only the student holding the ball could talk, and when they were done, they tossed it to another student. Additionally, as students expressed their opinions, others were allowed to switch sides if moved by a specific argument.

A play-based learning model takes this concept of gamification even further. Any learning that is happening in a playful manner could fall into this category. The Playful Classroom recommends that playful learning opportunities are those that include imagination, sociability, humor, spontaneity, and wonder. It can manifest as role play, exploratory play, dramatic play, deep play, or many others. 

The broad nature of this definition allows for countless interpretations and versions of the same lesson, which can be daunting for a teacher with several content areas to teach a day. I am learning through practice that this doesn’t have to be a complicated or stressful process, just a reframing of how I plan and execute lessons in the classroom. 

For example, when learning about animal habitats, our indoor investigations could only take us so far. Taking our learning outside made all the difference. We could actually notice all the different creatures in our unique school environment. As students explored and found more examples, they also got more and more excited. Afterwards, we stayed outside, and I challenged them to identify each example as a consumer, producer, or decomposer. The challenge aspect took our habitat play to the next level, and it connected prior and present learning!

The most impactful part of that learning experience was that it completely veered away from what was written in my plan. The exploration and game naturally happened as the lesson unfolded outside. I will always love an organized, streamlined lesson plan, but my best days as a teacher are proving to be the ones where I scribble all over it, move the pieces all around, and let the students take the lead from time to time.

In order to effectively implement a play-based model, I must also enlist the help of experts. Luckily, I’m surrounded by play experts everyday in my classroom. My students are the greatest resource I have when it comes to making learning more playful, which is why the question, “Can we make a game for this?” is so very powerful. If I dare ask that question out loud and allow the students to be part of the answer, we can transform the mundane into the magical together. 

This transformation happened beautifully one day in math class. When one of the students was having trouble with pairs adding up to 10, another student suggested a game with dice to practice the skill together in a more fun way. I watched the struggling student’s frustration transform into laughter and shortly after, proficiency in the math skill. It all appeared so effortless, but the deliberate goal behind the play made it an effective approach.

I’ll be the first to admit that play-based learning makes me a bit nervous because I have become a tad controlling over these last few years of teaching. Letting go of that control in order to make time, space, and opportunities for play doesn’t always come naturally to me, but I know it’s worth the extra work to implement this educational framework. The combination of deliberate educational goals coupled with playfulness creates powerful educational opportunities for everyone in the classroom. Playful learning is also happier learning, so I should never ever be afraid to play, mess up, learn, and try again, since it seems to lead to happier teaching as well.

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