Two Perspectives to Playful Learning

Educators know playful learning can help students. But not all adults understand how it works or why.

by Susan Gentz / November 1, 2017 0

Last week, the Center for Digital Education's (CDE’s) community of chief academic officers came together to discuss wins and challenges in their work to transform education. As always, the conversation pushed thoughts, ideas and best practices for everyone in the room.

One of the conversations was around the idea of playful learning. The biggest question being, how do we bring students together and have them learn in this way, and why is it helpful?

There were two clear challenges to implementing playful learning, and interestingly, neither one came from the students. Pushback comes from parents and colleagues within the district. District leaders get questions like, “what do you mean you want my students to play all the time?” Or “Why are you bringing toys to the school?” It can often be hard for parents to understand playful learning, because when their child describes what they did in school, it really sounds like they are playing. (Often, because they are enjoying learning!)

The other pushback in this conversation came from other district leaders. Playful learning can have a perception that a district is not serious about learning. Communities are expecting school districts to prepare their future generation workforce for jobs that take critical thinking — and rightly so. However, this doesn’t mean that playful learning should automatically be off the table.

Playful learning involves a great deal of design thinking. What is design thinking? Well, it’s creating a solution for someone who needs it, and a lot of times “playing” or experimenting is what’s best to create the solution. One of the best things about students is that they aren’t afraid to break things. An open-ended learning model could lead to using tools better and even creating better products because they aren’t worried about making something go wrong. Their fearless, inquisitive attitude can best be fostered in a playful learning environment.

How can we address these perceptions?

When students come home to the dinner table, and they tell their parents that they played at school, there are broad assumptions that can be made. The best way to explain playful learning is by doing. Invite parents into the classroom and give them a design thinking challenge. Then they will see the challenging work their children are doing every day.

Playful learning is often misconstrued. The students are engaged in a very planned curriculum but when they go home, that’s not what the parents hear. Take the time, when implementing playful learning models, to show parents what is actually happening. They will see that although students are using “toys” and devices, they are working to solve incredible problems, and doing it with style.

Communication for playful learning must be done upfront. This goes for parents, the community and other district leaders. When there is pushback from colleagues on playful learning, take it to the teachers. Even though the perception at the top can be that playful learning isn’t the right path, the teachers will likely have a desire to implement playful learning in their classrooms — and an overwhelming majority. Educators recognize how playful learning can spur imagination and new solutions to problems that have not been previously considered.

The real answer is vision and communication. Educators see how playful learning helps their students to make learning connections and solve real-world problems, providing context for their learning. What appears to get in the way is adults not understanding the why or the how. Whenever there is a plan to roll out any learning model that looks different from the traditional setting, district leaders must think through the why of the change, and how best to communicate with every stakeholder in the community.