Play & Recess

Reintroducing Playful Learning in High School

These strategies for using play-based learning with older students can get them more engaged with your course content.

March 26, 2024
skynesher / iStock

By high school, especially 11th and 12th grades, most students have been trained to sit, stay, and listen at school. As education makes a much-needed shift toward learner-centered models, high school students need help reconnecting with the joy and play inherent in authentic learning.

By “play,” I don’t mean the strict definition of play—completely self-directed. I mean bringing the spirit of play to high school. High school can’t be fun all the time, but a recurrent spirit of play can help ensure that it’s not all drudgery, either.

We need to help students remember how to play. High school students are reticent about putting themselves out there, so we need to first create a safe space to explore ideas in “weird” ways, take risks, be vulnerable. They have to be able to see firsthand that yours is a space where judgment and criticism are reserved for growth-based feedback, not personal attacks.

Step 1: Create Authentic Conditions for Play

It can’t feel forced. And playing a game just to kill time isn’t as effective as meaningful play, which provides authentic learning that helps students process and present information and content.

I’ve designed freeze tag games with chemistry classes, done in-class improv operettas in English language arts, turned solo tasks into group relay races, but always connected them to key learning concepts, skills, and standards.

Step 2: Start Small—Really Small

Make it safe. For students who haven’t “played” in some time, the shift to more dynamic play must be gradual and safe: safe to be silly without judgment and wrong without embarrassment.

The goal is to break down expectations in the classroom and open the door for more rigorous, creative play. At the beginning of a new class, semester, or school year, consider the following ideas.

Sit on the floor: Again, this is about shifting expectations, breaking the rules of high school. Sit in a circle. Read to the students. Pass objects around the circle and explain how they connect to key concepts. Have partners sit back-to-back on the floor with one student facing the board describing a concept until their partner gets it. Model for students that there are many ways of doing the same thing, and in this classroom, we’re open to exploring.

Move: Instead of turn-and-talk, think-pair-share, or give-one-get-one while students sit at their desks, move. Use gallery walks, poster discussions, and other tasks that get students moving.

Draw: It’s safe—think posters with words and pictures; play Pictionary; draw symbols from math, science, literature, and use them as flash cards; capture moments, scenes, or concepts as well as “what’s missing” in storyboards.

As students become more comfortable with discomfort and experience different ways to engage in their learning, gradually raise the stakes.

Make tableaux: Comprising silent frozen pictures or statue scenes, tableaux are a great way to physically represent content. In groups of  two to five students, replicate photos, represent math concepts, or physically show a setting. Once students have done tableaux, you can add the option for one line of dialogue, one sound, and/or one shift or movement to further communicate meaning. Give groups steps in a process; they demonstrate their step, and after all groups have had a turn, they all have to put themselves in the correct sequence.

Team play: Two or more people physically represent and act as an atom; or students act as tour guides, historians, park rangers, etc., and explain what’s happening in the picture, scenes, and tableaux created by peers.

Dance: Students create dance moves for vocabulary words or key concepts. They teach each other a few moves at a time and have a dance party. Turn on some music and call out a word; students do the dance move and shout back the definition.

Scenes or skits: Students act out a moment in history, create a skit showing the meaning of keywords, interview a character. And if doing these activities in class is too intimidating at first, have them start by doing this work via Flip and then build to live skits.

Step 3: Model Taking Risks

If you don’t do it, they won’t. Yep—you dance. You sit on the floor. You walk around. You admit when you’ve made a mistake or done something poorly and model how you plan to correct the error. The goal here is to demonstrate that silly is OK and the room is safe. You have to let go before they will.

This doesn’t mean letting go of rules or expectations. I danced with students, climbed on furniture, played catch to connect concepts, and always had control of the room. Honestly, because we were creating a safe space for risk-taking, for failing, and for being silly, students were typically more well-behaved in my classroom than in others (as reported to me by a very surprised administrator).

Step 4: Tap Into Old-School Favorites

From Play-Doh to shaving cream, crayons to simple props, students can switch to play mode more quickly by repurposing old favorites.

Shaving cream: Spray on desks and do math problems or vocabulary activities, or draw scenes or important moments. Students start at their own desks, then rotate and add on to each other’s shaving cream drawing.

Play-Doh: Create sequences of action, demonstrate concepts and physics, create a key symbol for a moment in time, character, or figure. Up the ante with stop-motion applications.

Snowball fight: Everyone writes a concept (math problem, vocabulary word or sentence, character quote, historical figure fact) on a piece of paper. Crumple them up into ”snowballs.” Throw them around the room. Everyone grabs a snowball and has to complete the problem, explain the quote, add another sentence, identify the next step to the sequence. Add on, throw again.

Bubblegum machine: A variation of snowball fight but with colored paper. Each color represents a different type of task, focus, or category. Think types of math problems, elements of writing, historical periods. Over the course of the class period, kids need to interact with at least one page of each color.

Step 5: Hand Over Ownership

As students embrace play, let them take the lead on when, where, and how to play with course content.

Student-led discussions: Students create and facilitate their own warm-up or review activity. This is a great way to see what they like and get ideas from other teachers or classes. Plus, it helps ensure that the discussion is about what they want to better know, understand, or do.

Scavenger hunts: Students set up experiments and experiences for each other, for other sections, for other grade levels.

If all of this feels silly or sounds like too much work, remember: Playing is learning. It’s wiring information in our brains. The tactile experiences that play offers help students build connections to content and often to each other. Students need movement; you need movement. These activities help break up the monotony for everyone.

Finally, these playful activities foster joy. It will increase the laughter in your room. And what a gift: students excited to come to your room because they never know what they’ll do next.

While play won’t happen immediately for all students (and some students may never get on board), by using this play skill-building guide, you might foster authentic play in any classroom with any age of learner.

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