We can learn to play, and play to learn. We’ve all come against that wall when students disconnect from the material we’re trying to teach. They struggle to find relevance in their own education, and we, as their teachers, mentors, and coaches struggle to find inspiring and innovative ways to engage them.
To ensure students are equipped with the right tools and skills to think, create, engage, and flourish in the 21st century, we have an opportunity to give them new opportunities to learn playfully — not just with the blocks from our own wonder years, but with powerful new games and simulations that engage and enlighten through experiences.
With playful learning, students find excuses to learn instead of excuses to slack off.
When playing games, we can be adventurers, scientists, wizards — whatever we want to be. Our playful identity both affects and is affected by our real world identities. For example, some students might see “scientist” as a more extraordinary identity than “gangster.” Using games in your classroom models aspirational identities that can empower your students to take charge in their education, by beginning to see themselves as agents and creative problem-solvers.
For more research on the empowering potential of identity in education, see the work of Fox Harrell and Sneha Veeragoudar-Harrell (MIT).
In primary school, we learn to use trial and error to approach problems that we don’t yet know how to solve.
In all games, too, we are constantly faced with challenges and asked to overcome them. We learn to fail, and to take failure not as a personal judgment but as a learning moment, something that exposes the underlying rules and points to where we need to do better. It’s important that students, especially in today’s educational climate, understand that failure is productive.
Sometimes we play hard and competitively. Sometimes we play casually and cooperatively. Regardless of the amount of exertion made in play we are still learning.
Yet this freedom of effort is typically not allowed in traditional learning environments. Students are expected to focus and exert a maximum amount of effort to be successful. Games allow students to control their exertion while still achieving the same learning goals.
Experimentation is something the classroom does not always encourage. Learning lessons and acquiring knowledge typically manifests through repetition and rote practice, and ends up being assessed through the same formula. Even if the lesson is fun, this lack of student centered learning is an antiquated approach to teaching and can lead to a less engaged classroom.
Games force players to make connections and solve problems in order to succeed. When applied to the classroom, games allow students take control of their learning through experimentation. Play allows students to forge stronger connections between the learning material and their unique game experiences, helping them retain knowledge far beyond the boundaries of the classroom.
“If it’s true that 97 percent of teens in the U.S. are playing digital games, then the focus on how games can fit into the shifting education system becomes that much more important.”— MindShift
“And while educational games aren’t new, Minecraft has some unique advantages that could usher in a new direction in education. In the future, students across the world may spend their class time punching trees.”— PBS Idea Channel
“What if, instead of seeing school the way we’ve known it, we saw it for what our children dreamed it might be: a big, delicious video game?”— The New York Times
“It turns out video games are just a Trojan horse for studying interest-driven learning. Games are very well designed for learning, but to also capture interest—to be captivating, motivating.”— Constance Steinkuehler, University of Wisconsin-Madison
“While games are by no means a ‘silver bullet’ to the current challenges that roil America’s schools…our educational institutions would be wise to more robustly leverage the ubiquitous digital media…that currently pervade children’s lives.”— Michael Levine, Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop
“Every teacher who has attempted to integrate technology into the classroom knows that getting parentson board can sometimes be a challenge.”— Jennifer Carey, Ransom Everglades School, FL
The topics, content and presentation of our guides are crafted by members of the Playful Learning network. We’re open to suggestions for improving this guide and others, ideas for new topics to cover and questions to answer, and tips or testimonials that will help other educators. Whatever your idea, we’d love to hear from you. Please contact us with your suggestion and we’ll get right back to you.