George Lucas Educational Foundation
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share

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!"

Was this useful?

Comments (18) Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Conversations on Edutopia (18) Sign in or register to comment

Mark Collard's picture
Mark Collard
Experiential Trainer, author & keynote speaker. Founder & director of playmeo

The founder of the National Institute for Play - Dr Stuart Brown - says that play is as essential to the development of human beings as sleep and nutrition. I whole-heartedly agree.

Indeed, Dr Brown explores the impact of people who experienced a deficit of play in their life histories, and discovered that in almost all cases, these people exhibited many forms of anti-social behaviours.

I know from my work as an adventure educator - particularly working with Project Adventure - that play is my most potent tool to assist groups and individual to take responsibility for their learning. Play is often fun, and therefore is a critical element of attracting people into experiences and conversations which lead to discovery, which lead to sharing, which lead to learning.

I recommend all Edutopia subscribers to check out Dr Brown's research and book called 'Play' -

In my world too much play is never enough. Indeed, I would strongly argue for a new Group to be established here on Edutopia which focuses solely on Play & Experiential Education strategies.

Have fun out there!

Mark Collard

Whitney Hoffman's picture
Whitney Hoffman
Producer LD Podcast, Digital Media Consultant, Author

I had the great pleasure to interview Dr. Brown on the LD Podcast. He's amazing. Well worth the time to read and understand, and how important play is to problem solving and risk taking in students.

Mark Collard's picture
Mark Collard
Experiential Trainer, author & keynote speaker. Founder & director of playmeo

What is true play?

It comes in many forms, but true play features some if not all of the following characteristics to my way of thinking (with thanks to Dr Stuart Brown):

- it is apparently purposeless; you play for no reason other than it is enjoyable;

- it is voluntary; no one can make you play;

- there is an inherent attraction about the activity, something which is often hard to describe but it calls you;

- you are free of time; it's found in those moments when time just flies by;

- you don't really think of yourself; you are fully immersed in playing and nothing else matters. There is a distinct lack of pretense;

- you want it to last forever.

To this end, play is a state of mind, not an activity. So, play can be found everywhere people gather - at school, at work, sport and in recreation. Play is that flow state we can all recognise in others who display an expertise in their field.

I strongly believe that the more we immerse our students into play - true play - the greater their potential for growth and development into stunning, powerful, socially developed human beings.

What do others think?


Meagan Kimm's picture
Meagan Kimm
First grade teacher from Burbank, California

I believe incorporating play into our school day is so important. This is the only chance our student's get to be children and we shouldn't be rushing them to grow up. My first graders love dressing up and playing in our "housekeeping" area.I love watching them interact with each other. Great article!

Katherine Xiao's picture
Katherine Xiao
Social Media Marketing Intern at @Edutopia

Wendy Lecker makes some great points about how essential play is for kindergarten students here:

"Play is essential in kindergarten. Through play, children build literacy skills they need to be successful readers. By speaking to each other in socio-dramatic play, children use the language they heard adults read to them or say. This process enables children to find the meaning in those words."

miriam's picture

Totally with you, Becky. Math AND science are tremendous subjects to in incorporate play - and music. I'm a phy ed teacher, now a PreK-G12 Substitute Teacher in a picturesque rural community, refusing to succumb to classroom asphyxiation. I am so grateful for the professional development requirements so i can connect with lively people outside my area. I'll carry around jump ropes in my portable "sub survival kit" and begin compiling memory games. I have a background in music, love to dance, and manage a summer community pool, if you have suggestions where to look....

miriam's picture

What! I'm a sub, with a background in phy ed. With the exception of sudokos, I've never heard of these activities!!
The kids will go crazy with all this! I will Google all this, but how did you learn all this? Want to point me in the best direction?
I manage a rural community pool in the summer, so if you know anything relevant for that classroom, I'm open! Thanks, Kevin. Really.

Robyn Spaeth 2nd grade teacher's picture

I enjoyed the article as well as the links. I went to the "Makerspaces" link because I had never heard of that. It sounds like a great idea to have a location in your school where tinkering items can be stored. I would like to read more about the logistics of this setting, such as lesson plans, items needed, storage ideas, cleaning ideas,etc? Have any of you ever heard of this or have done this? I'm excited to dig deeper into providing this time. I'd like to hear how and when others are incorporating play in their daily plans.

Nathan Rice's picture
Nathan Rice
Founder of Free The Numbum


I really love what your doing at Just checked out the site and I was blown away. What a great resource for teachers! Would love to have the opportunity to talk with you more about your program. Take care,


Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.