The evidence is clear: we need to add play and its many benefits to our secondary lessons

A board game with dice that shows the progression through Chemistry by asking questions and using practical skills.

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Win your students over with some playful learning and you’ll all reap the benefits in the long run

Here’s a radical idea: learning through play could be part of education in secondary classrooms and higher education. The authors of A pedagogy of play say the traditional view of play and learning – sidelining play in schools – is a mistake. Learning is helped by ‘experiences that are playful, joyful, meaningful, actively engaging, iterative and socially interactive’.

The book is the result of eight years of research by a team at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in the US. It offers five ways educators can support playful learning: empower students to guide their own learning; create a culture of collaborative learning; encourage risk-taking and experimentation; promote imaginative thinking; and accept the different emotions play can create.

Encourage experimentation

Ben Mardell, one of the authors, says: ‘A relaxed, engaged student has the right mindset for learning. The nature of play changes as we age but its value remains. Playfulness has three overlapping features: agency, meaning learners can do their own thing; exploring the unknown; and experiencing joy at finding something out.’ In science education, the playfulness approach tends towards experimentation and exploration. ‘Niels Bohr [Danish physicist] is the patron saint of our project. He loved trying out different things in his Copenhagen lab.’

The brain is primed to learn when it perceives safety, social connection and engagement

One stellar example of playful science is a long-term project undertaken by a school in Massachusetts, US, where students measured background radon levels in their homes. They learned how to take samples, use local university testing machines, analyse data and share it at a town meeting. ‘Playfulness can be a serious thing,’ says Ben. ‘It can be anything that captures the imagination, figuring something out in an engaging way. The kids decided what was important and helped to run the project, not knowing what they would find. This unknown made it meaningful. It’s very different to kids experimenting in a lab when they’ve been told what is going to happen.’

Lisa Forbes, a counselling researcher at the University of Colorado, Denver, US, investigated the effect of playful pedagogy in higher education and thinks the book’s approach is ‘brilliant’. In her study, she included games and play at the start of each class, used role play to practise skills and designed competitions within class activities. Students were more engaged in this highly interactive environment than in traditional lectures and believed they were retaining content more effectively.

Boost brain power benefits

Lisa believes that ‘Playful pedagogy produces better learning outcomes [at any age] because it better aligns with how the human brain works best. The brain is primed to learn when it perceives safety, social connection and engagement. Neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and oxytocin, are released in these environments. Activating these neurotransmitters within our students’ brains boosts mood, motivation, sense of urgency, excitement and concentration, leading to more engaged, memorable and personal learning.’ She adds that more rigid modes of education can produce stress hormones, akin to putting the brakes on learning. In traditional modes of education, the instructor often takes the role of the all-knowing expert. ‘Power differentials create unnecessary fear and anxiety in learning, which can be reduced by using play,’ says Lisa.

Some critics argue that playful learning wastes time and interferes with ‘proper’ learning. She counters that when students are anxious or disengaged, instructors must work harder and spend more time getting them to pay attention. ‘Playful pedagogy, on the other hand, is like fertiliser for the brain. You can prime students for learning. “Wasting” a little time on play – whether it is a fun icebreaker or designed to teach content – is an important and powerful investment.’

David Paterson, head of digital learning and a chemistry teacher at Aldenham School, Elstree, says play and creativity have always been part of his roles as researcher and classroom teacher. He says that many children see science as a world full of facts and correct answers but, really, it’s a highly creative field, where trained practitioners can disagree strongly and propose alternative hypotheses to investigate.

Unlock learning

David believes playful learning has two key ideas: learning about new systems/techniques, and being creative with that knowledge to learn more. For example, after demonstrating titration, he gives his students one lesson to ‘play’ freely with the equipment, allowing them to gain skills for later. He lets younger students play with the jelly and equipment and talk among themselves before writing plans to compare the dissolving rates of jelly cubes. The play approach often produces richer discussions with contributions from more students, helping them plan a more rigorous method.

‘We do need to be mindful of the, sometimes, limited success of getting students to understand the processes of how science works just by doing science, without explicitly discussing the processes involved,’ he comments. ‘However, hands-on science certainly helps my students understand the why and how of the science better.’

Maria Burke is a freelance science and business journalist