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Do we have the confidence to allow students to be playful learners?

Derek Pinchbeck, Head of Primary Years, Nanjing International School, China

Derek Pinchbeck, Head of Primary Years, Nanjing International School, China

This article engages teachers to reflect on learning through play.

In his seminal work, Play of Man, (click on the link to download a free copy) written in 1901, Karl Groos proposed that there are certain universal types of play which all children engage in and which help children to grow into fully functioning and effective human beings. Groos argued that whilst the exact form of the play is impacted by the culture around the child, the categories of play cross cultures. So, for example, whilst play-fighting occurs in all cultures playful sword-fighting only occurs in cultures familiar with swords.

These categories of play are:

  1. Physical Play
  2. Language Play
  3. Exploratory Play
  4. Constructive Play
  5. Fantasy Play
  6. Social Play

Image1_playThese types of play do not exist in isolation and as Peter Gray points out in his thought-provoking book Free to Learn, “a lively outdoor group game may be physical play, language play, exploratory play, constructive play, fantasy play, and social play all at once.” Gray goes on to make a definition of what play is and defines it in five ways:

  1. Play is self chosen and self directed
  2. Play is an activity in which means are more valued than ends
  3. Play has structure or rules that are not dictated by physical necessity but emanate from the minds of players
  4. Play is imaginative
  5. Play involves an active alert, but non-stressed frame of mind

What leaps out to me about this list is that if we replaced the word play with learning virtually all educators I know would agree whole-heartedly that this was a wonderful list of what we seek to achieve in our classrooms.

Why is it then that so many schools are unable to build upon the natural playfulness of children and too often learning becomes:

  1. Entirely teacher directed
  2. Valued only as a means to achieve a grade or other external reward
  3. Has a structure and rules emanating from the minds of the teachers rather than the students
  4. Lacks imagination
  5. Involves passive students in a stressed frame of mind

I would not go as far as Gray does in his book in rejecting notions of traditional schooling, and would question whether the success he attributes to the alternative schooling system at Sudbury Valley, is not, in part, due to the Cultural Capital that the parents and students who go there possess. I do however feel that all educators need to look reflectively at how we can promote a playful state of mind in our students. Why is it that so many students and adults alike view learning not as play but as work? I would argue that often the reason we are unable to achieve this is that, whilst intellectually we may agree, on a core level many people do not accept Vygotsky‘s argument that “a child’s greatest achievements are possible in play, achievements that tomorrow will become her basic level of real action.”

derekToo often this lack of trust is obvious in the place where free play should be the most valued, the playground. In particular teachers concern about rough and tumble play where “the roughness of play is perceived by teachers and playground supervisors as potential problems. However, the potential benefits, such as conflict resolution training and motor skills training, are overlooked by many teachers.” (On the Child’s Right to Play Fight), means that even in the playground play is heavily regulated.

Once in the classroom, the time and space to play with objects and ideas is often limited or closely prescribed leaving students to feel that learning is something that is done to them not something they do. Do not get me wrong I am not arguing that teachers should not have a clear idea of where they will take student learning (see my previous post Four implications of structured inquiry). What I am arguing is that learning can be done most effectively if teachers have the confidence to give the students increased ownership over their learning and time to play with ideas without fear of the final product being ‘wrong’. In this way students will be empowered to go above and beyond the intended learning of the teacher and really reach their maximum level of achievement.

Whilst important things like high stakes external exams do place limitations on how far this can be achieved, hopefully the playful mindedness questions below will help you reflect upon this in your classroom, whatever age of student you teach. I would love to hear back from you whether they have enabled you to move learning in a more playful direction or whether you have other questions to provoke playful learning.

  1. How do I let my students know that I have confidence in them as self motivated learners?
  2. How much choice do your students have about how and what they learn?
  3. Is the learning space your classroom or the students classroom?
  4. How much input do students have in setting up the rules and norms of the classroom?
  5. Is there time and space for students to ‘play’ with objects or ideas?
  6. How is it clear that imagination and creativity is valued?
  7. Which word do I use most in class ‘play’ or ‘work’?

If we could all make our classrooms a little more playful I think we can move closer to having the happy motivated learners we all desire.

Derek began his teaching career at an inner city school in the UK. For the last 20 years he has been teaching in International Schools around the world. He began his involvement with the PYP when he moved to Milan, Italy in 2001. Derek is a PYP workshop leader and IB site visitor. He blogs at Thirst For Thinking.

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11 Responses to Do we have the confidence to allow students to be playful learners?

  1. Suzanne 17 July 2014 at 1:09 pm #

    I love this posting! Thanks so much for framing play in such a convincing way. As an early years educator, building plenty of time for free and structure play into our day was really important to me because it afforded fascinating observations. Because when we observe, we can affect what is happening, I would sometimes pretend to be doing something ‘boring’ beside the group I wanted to observe and the ‘eavesdrop’ for a few minutes. writing down pertinent comments. This is also a useful way to employ a classroom volunteer – giving them something to listen out for/watch for with targeted groups/individuals. With the ideas you’ve just shared, it would be really interesting to observe the different kinds of play in given situations so that dispositions, skills and concepts might be the focus of future learning engagements.

  2. IB Elite Academy 20 July 2014 at 8:05 pm #

    Amazing and adorable post . I seriously believe playful methods can yield much better results than old traditional ones. Student participation has to be increased for effective and long lasting learning and playful methods re’ just perfect to do that .

  3. Jennie Ashworth 15 November 2014 at 9:27 pm #

    I was so excited when I came across this post. This echoes my beliefs that children do learn by play; thus the statement, play is child’s work. This allows constructivism to occur in the child’s learning which is the belief of IB. Thanks for posting further resources and articles on play. I feel that with all of the testing and mandates that teachers are exposed to many or most are fearful of “trusting the students”. And now with merit pay on the forefront teachers fear that they have to see that the students are taught the skills. It does take a true risk-taker to implement play into the classroom at all levels.

  4. Angela Harding 24 November 2014 at 9:28 pm #

    I do believe that it really important for students to learn through play. This is completely lost when students enter a “testing year”. There is too much pressure on students and teachers to pressure. Also, I think that there is so much curriculum to cover that it is overwhelming to teachers! Another issue is how to incorporate play. So thank you for the articles and resources to help with that!

  5. Inga Carey 3 December 2014 at 3:09 pm #

    I often wonder how I can get the kids to be able to play and create more in music on their own. I am very guilty of the teacher-directed activities. I want to give them the tools to create, but sometimes I feel its needed to limit instruments and other items because they won’t use them correctly. As an arts teacher in my heart I believe play and creating are important, so it’s eye opening to realize that the kids don’t do enough of that in my classroom.

  6. Donna Rabon 17 December 2014 at 5:32 pm #

    I am a speech/language pathologist. Play is something that some of my special ed students do not know how to do. A few of my students are reluctant to speak unless they are in a relaxed state of “playing” or doing something fun. I have to adjust my teaching to that and not worry about getting a number of correct responses in a limited amount of time.

  7. IB Tutor 8 June 2015 at 5:44 am #

    I am IB Maths tutor and i understand how teaching concept in stories format helps Students in leaning and understanding the concepts. As you have mentioned different categories of play, they are really applicable as they influence the learning process of Student.

  8. IB Tutor 8 June 2015 at 5:47 am #

    As IB Maths and Physics Tutor allow students to solve questions with different ideas to ensure that creativity is developed in students otherwise a lot of students starts learning by hear different concepts without understanding it.

  9. ib elite tutor 12 March 2017 at 6:42 pm #

    Really a very helpful post.Playful methods are really important in the learning process of a student.I request to put more information and examples about exploratory and constructive play methods

  10. IB Physics Online Tutors 6 May 2022 at 8:05 am #

    That was amazing post.With these we can do the interactive learning and learning can become fun and easy

  11. Tech Blicks 6 May 2022 at 8:09 am #

    Really a very helpful post.
    As a Technical Trainer, I always provides some activities to make their learning more interactive and easy

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