Playful learning

9 considerations

Don W. Brown wants to put a stronger element of play back into classroom learning. Here he reflects on Nine Considerations for doing so successfully.

The regrettable decline of playful learning

Discussions about the role of “play” in the classroom are on the rise.  Early Years professionals have found ways to use play for decades to engage students in all kinds of learning tasks, from learning dinner table manners to the basics of addition.  In K-12 schooling, the emphasis on academic tasks have begun to take the place of what little remnants of play existed.  Too often, in the name of documenting student learning of specific skills, more time is highly structured, focused on easily-measured outcomes.  The good intent of creating a student on-track to read by grade 3 is now leading us away from broad outcomes (enjoying reading, using imagination when reading, and sharing emotional reactions to reading) towards mechanical outcomes such as sounds-per-minute or correct syllable decoding.

The potential of play

Play and the curriculum

Many educators are now questioning this trend, and suggest the use of a play-based instructional model for at least some parts of the instructional day.  Some guidance may be useful when bringing games and play back into the curriculum. After reviewing some of the research base on play and computer gaming, I found 9 features of game[1] play that I feel map directly over to developing classroom play.  See if you agree!


1. Utilizing Special Interest, Challenge and Fantasy

If using play, try to use these three entry points and explicitly name them as the goal.  If something happens in the news that sparks broad interest, it would become a great starting point for a game.  Some students strive for challenge (such as Battle of the Books here in the US), and love to have guided preparation knowing a contest is coming. Handling the dynamics of contests can also bring about deep discussions about fairness, work ethic and talent.


Finally, there are always a few imaginative students who naturally live partly in fantasy.  This could be in terms of a video game, a novel series or even dreams of their own future.

Linking this to writing an original screenplay, developing character biographies or debating reactions to a potential fantasy situation (from a book, movie or game) can help students dig deeper into writing skills.


2. Integrating Work and Play

Play in the classroom usually means integrating some instructional goal with play.  Research has shown that play in online gaming holds the potential to improve collaboration skills, fact memorization and even understanding concepts such as fate, power, progress and identity.  It can also be highly motivational.[2]  The real-world game of Classcraft[3] is an excellent example of using play for creating empathy and tapping on student knowledge of classic online gaming roles.

3. Challenge and the “Goldilocks Principle”

Educators who have studied learning theory will recognize this as Vygotsky’s “Zone of Proximal Development”.  The challenge in the play must not be too easy or too difficult.

The game itself must allow for different student skill sets or allow the game players to work together to present a unified ability level that matches the game.



4. Immediate Feedback

Again found in K-12 learning theory, this time in the work of Madeline Hunter, the best games provide immediate feedback.  If students make a mistake or offer incorrect responses, the gameplay rewards or punishes.  In truly excellent games and play situations, the learner is given the correct information along with the consequence of being wrong so they won’t make the mistake again.

Nearly every drill-based online game uses this method.  You can create these games for real-time play.

Try or .


5. Instructional Support

Since students are working near the “edge” of what they know and are able to do, there should be optional support available. Teachers must anticipate when students are likely to need instruction. This can be instruction in content, support for problem-solving, or even emotional time-outs to reflect and even pause the play.  Students can develop empathy, resiliency and decision-making when they are challenged, but they must believe that with support they can make it through the game or play situation.

6. Narrative

In a recent planner in an IB Primary Years Program classroom, we looked at “stories”.  As we found story lines in novels, movies, video games and even podcasts, it became clear that narratives are powerful.  There is some support to the idea that our brains are particularly wired for story arc, and that the narrative form has “special status” in the memory.  This is demonstrated in the many ways story is used for learning at all levels from fairytales to TED Talks.  Use oral story telling to convey what narrative is, then connect it to writing a good story.  Better yet, try the Tell Tale card game.

7. Hypothetical Worlds.

Whether a simulated world is based online, or in a student’s vivid imagination, we have a powerful tool that can hook learning to emotion.  When playing games that invite imagination beyond a task and going into the creation of an imagination-based environment, we can develop skills that improve reading retention, descriptive writing and predicting human behavior.

8. Entertainment and Enjoyment

Modern students are no strangers to the immersive experience of a great game or the excitement available from entertainment on any device.  The good news is that if they experience a “flow” experience in these ways, they can understand what it might be like to attain with a musical instrument, reading a great novel or producing a work of art.  The emotional cycles present in games (suspense/thrill/relief cycle) can be utilized by the teacher by setting up classroom experiences that give students some control, but also involves risk.  Adding dramatic teaching, role play, or emotion-eliciting music all enhance enjoyment.

9. Types of Interest

In an oral story telling session, we discussed books, poetry, podcasts and games as a class.  Students asked me if they could convey a story by creating a video game using Gamestar Mechanic.  Why would I not want to allow them to incorporate a strong personal interest into a major instructional goal?  Granted, the story had to be told as the game was played or with a LOT of screen shots, but they were SO engaged!

More than sugar

To summarize, adding an element of play is more than Mary Poppins’ Spoon Full of Sugar.  It is a fantastic way to make connections between student interests, imagination, and school work.  Adding gaming concepts to instruction can provide emotional experiences that make learning more memorable.

The next time you are planning a unit of instruction, why not add a play-like dimension?  It is very likely it will be better remembered, more enthusiastically executed, and you may even have more fun yourself!


Don W. Brown, D.Ed., is an IB/PYP Teacher,  Instructional Technologist, and Professional Development Consultant at the Oregon Trail Public Schools. Find him on LinkedIn




For more on research behind play, see

[1] Chapter 8: Deep Learning in Serious Games (Graesser, Chipman, Leeming & Biedenbach) in Serious Games: Mechanisms and Effects.  Edited by Ritterfeld, Cody & Vorderer, Routledge, NY 2009.

[2] Designing Effective Serious Games: Challenges and Opportunities for Research, iJET,  Volume 5, Special Issue 3: “Creative Learning with Serious Games”, November 2010

[3] See

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