George Lucas Educational Foundation
Teaching Strategies

Hoist the Sails: The Great Quest for a Play-Based Classroom

By integrating play into your classroom culture and curriculum, you can engage students' senses and pique their curiosity while infusing content through tangible, shareable activities.
November 3, 2016
photo of students and teachers playing with a puppet
iStock.com/SolStock

Fifth-grade students arrive at school to find an unfamiliar sound traveling down the hallway from their classroom. The sound of crashing waves leads them through the door where images of the Santa Maria await them. In two areas of the room, carefully selected materials have been laid out for their exploration. These materials later become a cardboard ship with a pulley system of sails, including simple circuits and LED lights. 

During the Great Quest project, students set sail for the New World on the Santa Maria each morning in their literacy class. Mimicking the lives of the sailors, they plop onto pillows inside of the ship and prepare to read Pedro’s Journal: A Voyage with Christopher Columbus by Pam Conrad. Copies of the book are located on a table built by the students, using twine and natural materials. Across the classroom, a hut and campfire stand as a replica of a Native American village. The classroom is also provisioned with maps, costumes, photographs, artifacts, and fiction and nonfiction literature. Students explore the voyage of Christopher Columbus through research, exploration, and carefully planned play-based experiences.    

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Play can no longer be thought of as merely an unstructured or frivolous activity. Through the emerging field of neuroeducation, experts within neuroscience, pedagogy, and psychology are studying the science behind imagination and the importance of play. It is viewed as a key component of student learning, one that should be promoted as a core classroom pedagogy to enrich students' love of learning and creativity. It offers an authentic way for them to demonstrate the application of their knowledge, and can even serve as a valuable tool for teachers to informally assess student learning.

Over the last decade, leading my project-based learning school, I've witnessed the power of play first-hand. It promotes student creativity, critical thinking, and rigorous content-based learning. In our school, we believe that play should extend beyond the preschool years and into the upper primary grades. Our teachers model play, setting the culture for a playful classroom.

I recommend the following tips to begin integrating play into your classroom or school. 

1. Play With a Purpose Throughout the Day

Play should be approached as an element of classroom culture rather than an activity that occurs at a specific period of the day. Classrooms that embrace interdisciplinary learning are ideal for play. Activities can be content- and standards-aligned and carefully set up by the teacher. I'm not advocating instructions for students to follow from start to finish, but rather a structure and purpose for play where they also have an opportunity to explore, ask questions, and collaborate to solve problems. Teachers can leverage the power of play through role-playing, games, construction, art, music, movement, and technology.

2. Engage the Five Senses, Pique Curiosity, and Infuse Content

Play-based pedagogy begins by engaging all of the senses, enveloping students in the excitement of the project. Allowing them to design and build game-based learning environments through constructionist projects is a great way to pique initial curiosity for deeper learning and understanding. In our Columbus project, student engagement was high after they used the provided materials to construct the ship and village.

Since play often begins and evolves through student curiosity and imagination, it is important to set the stage for creative learning. The research of neuroscientist Matthias Gruber, PhD, of the University of California, Davis, found that we retain more information following a high-curiosity state. After teachers pique their students' curiosity through a driving question, experience that sparks interest, and an engaging classroom environment, students' brains are more likely to retain the following information. This opens the opportunity for teacher-directed content during play, integrating required curriculum concepts that might otherwise have been less engaging. 

3. Integrate Constructionism Through Various Media

Children learn best by doing. Hands-on activities allow for the manipulation of materials, one of the main forms of play. Students can express their creativity and apply their knowledge through a work product or model. Models can be tangible or electronically generated through graphic art, media, and animation. It's important to provide an abundance and variety of materials and media for students to express their learning through play.

4. Collaborative Play, Technology Integration, and Student-Generated Projects

During the Great Quest Project, the class engaged in imaginative play through student-written and -directed theater. After researching the voyage of Columbus, groups of children acted out small plays to share the content that they learned. One member filmed each group's performances on an iPad. Once complete, the groups reviewed and edited their videos using iMovie. Throughout the project, students revisited the performances by viewing them in the classroom library; this provided an opportunity for reflection throughout the project. When students generate a work product, they have more ownership of their learning. Creatively applying the concepts learned—through drama and technology—resulted in a deeper understanding of the material.

5. Integrate Solo Play

While collaborative play is important, so is solo play. The fifth-grade students worked on a creative writing piece, developing a first-person narrative from the perspective of a sailor or Native American. Each student designed and made time-period clothing to wear during the presentation of their written work, using various craft materials, fabric, and recyclables. Each student also used the application Puppet Pals to create an animated film of his or her narrative piece. All students owned their work product, and this phase provided a period to create and reflect on an individual basis. At the culmination of the project, they presented their work products to the group for feedback.

It's possible for play, standards, content, and academic rigor to co-exist within the same classroom environment. Play is a pedagogy that ensures whole-child development in a developmentally supportive way. In our experience, it has been a necessary and effective pedagogy through which students achieve deep and meaningful learning at all ages. Most importantly, it is fun!

I'd be interested to hear whether play is an element of your classroom culture or curriculum. Please share in the comments section below.

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Filed Under

  • Teaching Strategies
  • Creativity
  • Project-Based Learning
  • Student Engagement
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary