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Promoting Playful Learning Through Teacher Networks

Philipp Schmidt

MIT Director's Fellow
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Hands holding two puzzle pieces

When we hear the term playful learning, our minds often picture groups of children tinkering with new ideas, sharing their work with each other, and having a lot of fun in the process. But adults love to be playful, take risks, and experiment with new ideas just as much as children do. This is the reason why creating opportunities for adults to support each other as playful learners is a successful strategy to increase playful learning opportunities for children.

The term "adult" is very broad, and many types of adults -- parents, grandparents, mentors -- play important roles in a child's life. In this post, I will focus on a particular type of adult: teachers.

Peer Support Networks

Teachers have a crucial but often very difficult role. At least in the U.S., they are increasingly expected to prepare students to do well on a set of standardized tests. Not only are the students being evaluated, but the teachers' careers and salaries depend on these scores as well. In such an environment, playful learning can seem like a distraction, at odds with the pressure to deliver better results. And yet, many good teachers know that taking risks, experimenting, and not being afraid to fail and try again are some of the most important aspects of good learning for their students.

This is where peer-support networks come in. Especially for the most innovative teachers, who may feel isolated in their schools, connecting with peers in other schools provides the support they need to experiment and embrace innovation. Through these networks, new playful learning approaches can spread to other schools. There are countless examples, but two stand out: the Edcamp movement of educator unconferences; and the ScratchED online community for teachers who use Scratch in their classrooms.

Happy Campers

Edcamps are face-to-face workshops in which teachers share stories, experiences, lesson plans, or new ideas with each other. They are open to everyone, there's no registration, and participants volunteer to host breakout sessions on topics they are interested in -- for example, how to best use technology in the classroom or how to allow students to take charge of their own learning. Edcamps are spreading across the U.S. and internationally, but growing a face-to-face movement takes time. My team at the MIT Media Lab has collaborated with Edcamps on two virtual events, essentially moving the Edcamp model online. The response has been terrific. The two virtual Edcamps spawned 15 face-to-face events, and more than 85 percent of participants found it a good alternative to the more traditional professional development opportunities they are used to. And most importantly, online events can serve to recruit more organizers who start local Edcamps in their communities.

Learning From Scratch

ScratchED is another example of peer-to-peer learning as a powerful strategy for introducing new ideas into school system. Scratch is an online community where kids use visual "programming blocks" to learn coding by telling stories and expressing themselves creatively. It has been a huge success, and more than seven million Scratch projects have been created to date. Scratch is a valuable tool for kids to think and create, but introducing Scratch to into their already busy lesson plans isn't always straightforward for teachers. However, ScratchED helps teachers get started by providing example lesson plans and curriculum support materials. It also connects teachers with each other, enabling them to start projects together or translate documents. Some teachers have specific questions, such as, "How are costumes different from sprites?" or "Can someone help me with variables?" Others want to share and discuss materials they've created (for example, "I developed an assessment that I"d like feedback on").

The interplay between the online ScratchEd interactions (i.e., the online community) and the face-to-face ScratchEd interactions (i.e., the monthly educators' meet-ups) is particularly interesting. Teachers find activities in the online community, try them out in local meet-ups with other teachers, remix them for their specific contexts, and then share their experiences both online and in person. Aside from sharing tips and best practices, the feeling of being part of a community of likeminded innovators, and having access to help when needed, might be the most important benefit for teachers.

How to Become a Playful Learning Champion

One reason for the success of peer-learning communities is that nobody has to wait for permission to get started. We talk a lot about students needing to feel ownership of their learning, but the same is true for teachers. In my experience of working with different communities of teachers all over the U.S., I have seen a tremendous amount of expertise, commitment, and very hard work, often with little recognition. Peer-to-peer communities remove some of the burden of having to deal with daily restrictions and guidelines, and allow teachers to be playful learners themselves. Groups like Edcamp and ScratchED provide a welcoming space for current and future champions of playful learning.

Here are two suggestions to get started with peer-to-peer learning:

  1. Find an Edcamp that's happening near you, or host one yourself. It's easy!
  2. Join the ScratchED community and try out Scratch with your kids and friends.

(By the way, both are open to parents as well!)

Here are some additional resources:

Please share your own peer-to-peer learning experiences in the comments below.

Editor’s Note: This post is inspired by one of the eight patterns appearing in educators' innovative approaches in the Future of Learning report, "Equipping Adults to be Changemakers in Learning," by Ashoka and the LEGO Foundation.
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Comments (7) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

Great piece, Philipp! It reminds me of the fun I have when I learn at Google Summits and CUE conferences. Those presenters all seem to have the "fun-or-run" mindset, and they incorporate all kinds of active, silly and fun into their workshops. And then, as you mention, the fun continues via support networks like Twitter - I can always count on Google teachers to respond with a helpful (and happy) tweet when I call on them. And I'm looking forward to my first Edcamp in my town this summer! Thanks for sharing.

Philipp Schmidt's picture
Philipp Schmidt
MIT Director's Fellow

Hey Laura - Thanks for adding more examples of educator communities that engage in peer-to-peer and playful learning. I'm sure you'll have a great time at the Edcamp. One thing I find particularly exciting about them is that the initiative is driven by teachers from start to finish, and that so many participants end up hosting sessions.

Lindsey's picture


Thank you for sharing these about these great learning experiences. I enjoyed reading about how the teachers and educators are so motivated to volunteer in a professional development community. I am excited to check out the Edcamps and share experiences with other educators. It is so powerful when teachers communicate with each other out of their own will.

haney_gerald's picture

In the age of idevices,kids get distracted easily. They want everything playful and fun, therefore, engaging them in educational activities can be difficult. I am positive that these tips will definitely help me add the fun factor to everyday lecture. Thanks for sharing.

Makenzy's picture

Hi Philipp and Laura,
I am a grad student and have been reading some resources about teacher networks. I enjoyed reading this blog, I will definitely check out Ed camp and would love to hear more about Google Summits if you have any information! I don't have a very extensive teacher network at my school or even locally, but as a Kindergarten teacher I am always looking for more "playful learning approaches" to keep my students engaged.

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