Professional Learning

Weaving Play Into Professional Development

When teachers find ways to embrace their inner child, they can more easily empathize with their students’ learning experiences.

September 15, 2023
katleho Seisa / iStock

Imagine stepping into a space alive with the joyous sounds of laughter. Picture more than 30 teachers exchanging silly, comical faces and gathering small, round tokens of rotten mangoes. A little later, the same group waves dinosaur pencil-extender erasers (which I often have to repurchase because teachers are often quick to ask, “Can we please keep them?”) up in the air to identify their work partners by spotting a matching dinosaur. “Who has the pink stegosaurus?” yells a teacher who hasn’t found her partner yet. 

The playfulness in this scene might not reflect the seriousness expected in a professional development (PD) workshop. Some may even describe it as an unproductive use of time. Those of you who support teachers as department leads, instructional coaches, school leaders, or PD facilitators can come on a contemplative journey that reveals three fundamental principles embedded deep in my approach to guiding teachers through PD experiences: inner-child reconnection, play as a path to mastery, and bringing joy into learning environments.

1. Honoring Children Through Inner-Child Reconnection

To truly honor, empathize, and connect with our kindergarten or middle-school students, finding ways to embrace our inner child plays an important role. I received this invaluable advice years ago when I began my teacher training. As the educators described above engage in playful activities to build connections, they gain insights into their students’ worldviews. By reconnecting with the spirit of their inner child, educators can bridge the gap between instruction and deep connection, fostering empathy.

If you’re wondering, “Wait, what’s the name of the silly face-making game?” it’s called “It Takes Two to Mango”—a hilarious and quick-thinking matching game that requires you to draw a card with a face on it, make the expression, and look around to see if someone else is making the same one. 

2. Play as a Path to Mastery

“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.” To expand on Mister Rogers’s quote, consider that play is serious learning for adults too. Just as children learn through play, adults master new skills by embracing experimentation and exploration. Acknowledging that the journey to expertise involves play-like curiosity and discovery can reshape how school leaders and educators approach their growth. Play creates an increased willingness to take risks, cultivates inquiry, and creates a dynamic learning environment where innovation and skill development flourish. 

In recent PD workshops, I’ve prompted teachers to generate driving questions for a project-based learning unit. This is often a challenging task for them. Instead of having them create the question with pen on paper or directly onto a digital file, I provide them with wooden cubes (manipulatives). Each facet of the cube has a prompt, and as teachers playfully manipulate the cubes, they create variations of driving questions. By incorporating this playful hands-on element, they’re more eager to explore possibilities and generate far more variations of their questions than when prompted to write them or enter them in a planner. Almost always, the questions are higher quality, too, because as they play, they quickly see how a simple iteration improves the question. 

3. A Joyful Learning Environment

Teachers seek moments of joy and restoration in these challenging times. As we aim to create joyful learning environments in our schools, it’s vital to provide students and teachers with opportunities for laughter and “hard fun,” a concept beautifully articulated by Seymour Papert. Papert defines hard fun as engaging in learning experiences that challenge us to keep striving for an answer. So, the hard fun has a playful element while activating deep learning. 

Play and laughter isn’t simply a break from learning; it enhances engagement and memory retention. Integrating hard fun experiences, where challenges are tackled with enthusiasm, can transform learning environments into dynamic spaces of discovery where joy fuels the pursuit of knowledge. 

Engaging in these experiences demands a perspective beyond the immediate lived experience. It’s not about play for the sake of playing or laughing to lighten the atmosphere. Take, for example, the playful “It Takes Two to Mango” game described earlier: It is an activity that demands quick thinking, keen observation, and a willingness to embrace vulnerability through shared silly expressions among peers and colleagues. 

When I invited a group of teachers to explore how this game could be utilized in their classrooms and what skill development it could further develop, a teacher shared that many of her students struggle to read their classmates’ feelings. She emphasized how this game allows them to work on reading visual social cues in a fun way. The true value of the game lies in the subsequent reflection. As teachers engage in this activity, intended as an icebreaker, they consider how quick thinking and collaboration dynamics mirror the agile problem-solving required in teaching. 

My absolute favorite drawing game that has made its way to every PD I’ve led (in fact, across countries), is Whatchamadrawit. When a room full of adult learners are prompted to draw “a shark on a tricycle” or “a sheep in pajamas on the moon,” they’re reminded of their uniqueness as individuals and how each learner brings something different to the classroom. Although they were given the exact same prompt, the outcomes (drawings) are vastly unique and beautiful in their own ways because they capture the learners’ choices, marks, and identities.

Coaching Toward Growth for All  

This new school year, I invite those of you who support teachers to reflect on your willingness to be vulnerable by infusing play, experimentation, and joy into your PD sessions. You’ll see how doing so enables trust-building among your faculty and staff. As a result, there will be benefits in the classroom space.

Challenge conventional notions of what adult learning should look like, especially when working with teachers who inhabit a child’s or young adult’s world most of their days. Engaging in and creating possibilities for playful experiences that foster mastery, inner-child reconnection, reflection, and joy allows teachers to weave delight into the fabric of teaching and learning. This nurtures a more empathetic, skilled, and vibrant learning community and has a positive impact on both students and teachers.

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