Can learning through play really help teachers to achieve their formal lesson goals?
Don Ledingham, education blogger and director of education and children’s services for Midlothian Council
Over the years I’ve become a complete convert to the early years’ approach, where children are encouraged to learn through play and active learning. It’s been interesting to watch this approach percolate through the primary school, where play is now often used productively with older children.
Yet when I consider the secondary school curriculum, the notion of using play as an approach to promoting learning is rare and, in some subject areas, completely unknown.
The secondary school curriculum has evolved into a set of formal learning outcomes that often lead the teacher to adopt a methodology where they have complete control over the nature of the learning process, the criteria by which success will be measured and the duration of the learning experience. This is driven by a tacit expectation that ‘good’ teaching requires explicit goals and formalised learning steps.
But play has been used productively in secondary schools. For example, secondary teacher, @kenny73, told me on Twitter his class used sand trays and water to encourage students to simulate coastal actions.
He said: “I was very clear that I wasn’t looking for a definitive answer to anything, but I did want students to observe and record their findings before trying to link to actual coastal landscapes. The freedom allowed students to just try things their own way, experiment and probably make some different conclusions from mine, but some similar ones which they will ultimately keep from a memorable lesson. There are so many pieces and links we can pick up from this in future lessons, even if the learning was messy, with a different structure and an unusual way to explore the new topic.”
Teresa Cremin, professor of education at the Open University
The US researcher Sternberg argues that as children move through school, they quickly learn how the system works and suppress their spontaneous creativity. This doesn’t happen, however, at home, on digital platforms or out with their friends where they are often highly creative.
Some teachers, in seeking to achieve prescribed targets, which they are pressured to do, also curb their creativity, avoid taking risks and leading explorations in learning. But it needn’t be that way. A key issue in my view is being convinced that play and creativity have an important role in education, and that as professionals we have a responsibility to nurture these.
The world is changing and is more uncertain than ever before. Surely creativity is a critical component in enabling us to cope, to find pleasure, and to use our imaginative and innovative powers. These are key resources in a knowledge-driven economy and, as educators, we must take up the mantle and educate for tomorrow.
For an approach that fosters playful sharing of ideas, Teresa recommends The Helicopter Technique, developed by the team at MakeBelieve Arts in London.
Tim Taylor, AST working in Norwich
Play in education is still an important pedagogical tool for some educators. I would like to voice a word of caution, however. By declaring play as a child’s ‘right’, which should be somehow protected from adult interference, and that children in school should be free to lead the learning in whatever direction they desire, we leave ourselves open to attack of lack of rigour and professional responsibility.
I prefer to see play, and by extension the use of dramatic inquiry, as a well researched and effective pedagogical tool that develops children’s learning where other more traditional, direct instruction and open discovery methods are less useful. Nevertheless, they still have an important role in teaching and learning. Being a teacher is a practical occupation, where using the most effective methods we have available is paramount, and we should resist pressure to restrict our options by those who are fighting ideological battles.
Tim edits and writes for mantleoftheexpert.com and imaginative-inquiry.co.uk.
Sian Carter, English lead practitioner at The Mountbatten School in Hampshire
Surely, at its heart, if learning is fun and memorable, and you actually learn through it, that is the best kind of learning there is. Learn differently to think differently. Encourage students to question and develop their own ideas. There is nothing wrong with learning through play. Teachers must have the confidence to teach our students in this way and to develop this vital teaching and learning strategy.
Governments come and go. In 25 years time, I want students to remember my lessons and what they learned. I bet in 25 years time they won’t be able to tell me who the education secretary was. But they will remember that time when they were human punctuation marks or sang to learn key vocabulary. Or ran up and down the playground to learn tenses, or when they put a book character on trial in the conference room, judge wig and all. And that is why we should learn through play and continue to develop this vital pedagogy, despite any changes coming our way.
Sian shares her ideas for best practice and creative lesson plans with teachers on her blog.
Judith Raey, head of the Sue Hedley Nursery School, Hebburn, South Tyneside
Through the High Scope approach we have a strategy called SOUL: Silence Observe Understanding Listen. This is the process our practitioners go through before entering a child’s play. You are then making an informed decision as to how and if you should enter the play. Through this supportive climate for learning, the children and adults have genuine shared control. The adult highly values the child’s active learning and they become authentic play partners with the child, following their interests.
Jeremy Dean, English teacher working in Spain
I feel two of the most important things that play can develop in the class are interest and motivation. If we can encourage these, then the children are on board and contributing to their own learning.
Here’s an example that might interest the maths department. I use the ‘times table Macarena’ to teach counting in twos, fives, 10s etc. I play the Macarena and make sure the children know the moves. Here in Spain that isn’t an issue (in fact they correct me). How humiliating. Once we’re warmed-up, I write the answers to the table I want them to learn and practise on the board (three, six, nine, 12). I then show them how to sing the numbers in time with the movements of the song. Conveniently, there are 12 movements. Once we get the hang of it, I start rubbing a few of the answers off the board so the children have to remember them. I usually end the session by promising that we can do it again tomorrow. But only if they know the numbers. This often results in hastily scribbled notes being made. I’m always happy to see children setting their own homework. A word of warning, if you’re as old as I am, do warm up the muscles around your hips before attempting this.
Sally Wheeler, science AST at The Mountbatten School in Hampshire
I try to hand over the baton to students and relinquish control as much as possible. Bad science in movies as an introduction is always good. Could this really work? Why? How? A bit like the TV programme Mythbusters. Prove it. Students explore possibilities. I use abstract objects in the lesson to model key ideas: Lego and plasticine are a regular feature.
Before setting a problem, give students time to play with the equipment. Students will often plan a fantastic inquiry but stumble at the first hurdle. Let them play before they plan. This will pick up and address many misconceptions before they start. Give them direct, hands-on access to explore and generate their own questions. Pose the questions around the room and get each other to answer. They are in control.
Philip Waters, reader and participant in the live chat, is a play project coordinator for the Eden project, Cornwall. He is currently undertaking a PhD with the European Centre for Environment and Human Health
The tension within education about play being used as a vehicle for formal and informal learning is a ridiculous one, especially when you think about play as a biological drive. We should be asking ourselves what right we have in not allowing play to be a major part of children’s learning experiences. Who do we think we are, suppressing another human being’s natural way of engaging with the world?
Adults who tell children not to giggle, laugh, whisper, shuffle in their seats or stare out the window and dream, might as well gag and nail those children to the floor. They’re doing just as much harm. Adults who tell children what, when and how they are going to learn, and stifle every interest or self-pursuit, might as well sit all children in front of a screen and press the download button.
The problem is simple, really. Play is a challenge for schools because letting children play means handing over control, content and intent, and foregoing power. That’s the argument used by many play advocates. But play can be a reciprocal and social state of being. If schools could lose, just for a day, as a trial, their demarcations of authority and drop child/adult, teacher/student identities, and instead all be players for a day – and, dare I say it, all be learners too – then play just becomes another medium of practice used in the school experience.