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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Play has earned some inaccurate baggage of connotations over the years. When we talk about playing in education or play time, many would push back that it is not appropriate to play in classroom, or that play is not good learning. This could not be farther from the truth. I think Fred Rogers put it best:

Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.

Remember when you were a kid and were always playing? You often made mistakes, but those mistakes never got in the way of you trying again, trying something new, and ultimately coming to a place of success. Wouldn't it be great if we got just a little more of that into the classroom?

Why Play?

Play does so many positive things for us in terms of learning. When we play:

  • We build skills like confidence
  • We strengthen relations with others
  • We develop creative skills
  • We problem solve and tinker
  • We learn to be flexible

People who play learn to question something, predict an outcome, and evaluate their predictions through the process of play. When we play, we persist through challenges -- and we even enjoy it. Play builds excellent social and emotional skills and helps create a culture where those skills are valued at school. Probably one of the most important aspects of play is the way it treats failure and mistakes as non-punitive, ensuring that we have opportunities to learn from whatever went wrong. Yes, play makes failure fun. I love the use of the word "tinker" to describe play. It's serious work, but it's also fun work. Play values the process of learning as well and the product.

Elements of Play

The Strong, an organization devoted to the study and exploration of play, has broken down the elements of play. They use this great equation:

Play = Anticipation + Surprise + Pleasure + Understanding + Strength + Poise

Their Elements of Play graphic breaks down this equation in emotions. For example, anticipation is associated with interest, readiness and ultimately wonderment. Understanding is associated with empathy, skill and ultimately mastery. When I look at these emotions and descriptors, I get excited about creating them in my classroom. I want to work in a room where we create things like joy, ingenuity, awakening and even balance. I'd love to foster these elements of play by actually creating time to play.

Ideas for You

The Museum of Play is just one organization that champions the cause for play. They offer many resources including studies, activities and also great quotes about play. In addition, as you play with students, you can teach and assess creativity. As articulated in an earlier blog on creativity, it is important to break down what creativity means for students, encourage play, and set creativity goals as they play over and over again. You can develop Makerspaces in your schools and communities to foster tinkering and play in all kinds of contexts. Use game-based learning as a model, and create either "gamified" units or use games as part of the instruction. There are so many possibilities for embedding play in your everyday instruction. From these possibilities you can help reframe failure. It can be become not only non-punitive, but also a learning opportunity. More importantly, the forgiving context of play can make failure fun!

As you head back to school, don't forget to carve time out for playing with kids. Let's honor the reality that all of our students are kids, and because of that they need time to play. Although play may look different from 1st grade to 12th grade, all kids want to play, and we can use play to motivate students toward being creative, toward collaborating and tinkering in our classrooms, toward creating high-quality work and assessments. Also, don't forget to play as an educator -- you need it, too! Like I say to my fellow educators and students, "Let's have some fun and fail forward!"

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