Taking Play Seriously

Posted: May 21, 2017 in Uncategorized
Tags: ,

When we use the word play it conjures up lost days as a child making sandcastles on the beach or tents from sheets on a rainy day. It reminds me of free time, unrestrained joy and creative interludes in the drudgery of normal life. Play means fun.

If I use the word in the classroom, the atmosphere changes; students are more free with their experimenting without boundaries and restrictions. But often they don’t know what to do; they have forgotten how to play in a learning context. My students are Middle School but I am sure that High School students are the same. So, when did they forget how to play when learning?

Teenagers play all the time when learning a new video game, trying things out, failing, trying again, but they don’t equate the same when at school.

Being playful appears to stop at Middle School, perhaps as they may look foolish in front of their peers, are fearful of making mistakes or maybe they just think they are too old for play any more having transitioned from Primary School.

As for adults; we play even less when learning something new.

So who told us to stop playing?

Picasso stated that,

All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once they grow up.

What is play?

The Oxford dictionary describes play as:

activity engaged in for enjoyment and recreation, especially by children.

to engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose.

Play is a fundamental part of Kindergarten or pre-school, taking up much of these youngster’s day. Play is important to build imagination, collaboration and friendships and they are “developing their language, math, and social-interaction skills.” (Osei Ntiamoah, The Joyful, Illiterate Kindergarteners of Finland, October 1st 2015). Further more, according to her research study The Power of Play, “in the short and long term, play benefits cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development…When play is fun and child-directed, children are motivated to engage in opportunities to learn”.

But is play just for the young learners?


Get the Play-doh out!


Photo Credit: el genio del dub Flickr via Compfight cc

There is nothing more satisfying than playing with a lump of clay, plasticine or play-doh. At any age, the feel of the soft dough (and the smell) brings back memories of childhood and a uncontrolled time of wondrous abandonment! As an art teacher, my classes go quiet when clay is out and students would genuinely choose this medium above all others! But clay work higher up the school is far less used and painting, drawing and photography dominate our exhibitions every year. Other sculptural media feature but less so ceramics. Is this due to their fear of failure or just that we don’t allow them to play enough once past Primary school?

So how can we bring back fearless play and incorporate Play-doh into other curriculum areas?

In the Edutopia article “15 ways to use Play-doh in the High School classroom” (Carrie Wisehart, 6th November 2017) she reminds us that “Create is at the top of Bloom’s Taxonomy. When students are forced to synthesize what they’ve learned and make a sculpture, they are doing some crazy critical thinking. Play-doh is a great way to keep students engaged, let them use their hands, employ creativity, and you can have a new and different form of assessment that is actually fun.”

We remember when we engage.

Real world play (a bit like imaginative play, make believe or role play) may well be the way forward for many of our older students. In the article, “How to bring Playfulness to High School students” (Zaidee Stavely Mindshift July 24th 2015) students are more motivated when faced with problems to solve that take them beyond the classroom walls. Arana Shapiro, director of school design at the Institute of Play, believes that “when you start with content, and then you think about play, you often think about a game like ‘Jeopardy’ and the facts that kids need to know. If you can really dig deeper into the understandings you want kids to have five or 10 years down the road, those are almost always real situations.”

Play lights up our brains

Elizabeth Perry, in her recent talk “Play On” at the Learning 2 conference in Warsaw, Poland, reminds us that almost all creativity involves purposeful play. She talks us through her own experiences of new learning and how she nearly gave up when faced with a failed drawing.

“stay playful by doing something badly, then keep doing it”

You can read more on the creative exploits and daily drawings of Elizabeth at her blog, Wool Gathering.

 MIT Mitchel Resnick


The Importance of Play

When trying out something new, play offers no boundaries and no assessment, allowing us the freedom to experiment to learn.

One of my most favourite TED talks, “Watch me play…the audience” shows Bobby McFerrin “playing” the audience as an instrument and tapping into their ability to learn music on the spot:

There is an inherent need for play in us all, whether just to let off steam, as an antidote to our stressful lives or as genuine therapy.

Child’s Play

Play therapy (for adults) is a thing. In fact, in the Telegraph article “What’s behind the infantilising trend for adult play?”(The Telegraph, 3rd March 2016) I discover there are “creative counsellors” helping clients to let go and revisit the footloose days of their childhood, playing with sand and wellness centres with therapeutic play practitioners. Husni Bey, founder of Creativity Unmasked, believes, “creative play can help connect us with the subconscious, free emotional blockages and develop our confidence, optimism, self-worth and personal growth.”


Photo Credit: ClevrCat Flickr via Compfight cc

We get lost in play and stop thinking.

Popping up in the UK are adult soft play nightclubs. The first, in Birmingham at Amusement 13, hosted a “Regression Session”, with bouncy castle, a lego lounge and ball pits and BallieBallerson, in London, boasts 250,000 clear glow-in the dark balls in its adults-only ball pit bar, pulsing away to the music!

That’s it! I’m off to bounce away my Monday blues- care to join me?


Some of the most popular buys on Amazon this Christmas were adult colouring books and board games. In our busy and technology driven lives these retro tools give us a well earned breather and a step back into how it used to be before were were permanently connected.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my devices but we need to strike a balance and games, books and even jigsaw puzzles are a nod back to the days of calm and uninterrupted focused, unstructured play.


Photo Credit: mondays child Flickr via Compfight cc

But is it just a fad or a need for nostalgia?

In the article “How jigsaw puzzles became the latest warriors in the battle against the digital revolution” (Telegraph, March 26th, 2017), Sara Allbright, senior buyer for John Lewis says, “People see it in terms of trends like mindfulness in a world of technology,” says Allbright. “Using things like jigsaws to re-engage and take a moment away from the day-to-day.”

What sort of play do you remember and what do you think of digital vs traditional methods of play?

Learning a new tool

Just this week, I attended the local ADE meet up where we were invited to play around with the relatively new tool Apple Clips on our phones. We were challenged to tell a story using simple images and video clips including natural, outdoor and close up shots as well as selecting from some quotes to include.

We had 20 minutes to collaborate with other ADEs, have fun and learn the tool. Chaos and laughter ensued. The results were hilarious, clever and downright silly (ours) but it took this unstructured play to let us loose with our creativity and get to grips with the app. Needless to say we will all be looking for ways to include it in our classes as a result.

Mark Anderson (@ictevangelist) has written a great post on using Apple Clips in different curriculum areas


100 day project

This week I decided to commit to being more playful as a result of this post. I invite you to look at the 100 Day project, which originated in New Zealand or follow the posts on Instagram. Participants sign up online (this year’s starts on May 22nd) and commit to posting one creative thing every day for 100 days. Beck, an art teacher colleague, and I decided to both participate so we can encourage each other and track our creativity over time, much like how Elizabeth first started her daily 10 minute drawings.

Watch this space for the final (100) artworks.

What would you choose to do creatively daily for 100 days?

What would you like to pursue to bring back the child like playfulness in you?

What ways can you bring play into your classroom?

  1. elliealchin says:

    Hi Nicki!
    As a jigsaw puzzler who uses playdoh in my high school Geography lessons and who plays board games with my children I LOVED reading this blog post. Now that I have seen how creative you have been with your use of colour, font and images and I also have a lot of ideas for how to tackle the presentation of my blog (which is deathly dreary in comparison to yours.)

    Regarding content – I found the links fascinating. The most thought provoking for me was the How to bring playfulness to high school students. We use play doh to get students modelling landforms and they love it. We also use simulation games like jelly baby geography to teach population dynamics, and get them to even design their own educational board games in some units.

    I liked the way you explored how play is different to ‘leisure’ or ‘creativity’ – even though there is some overlap. Play is not the same as playfulness – and this is an interesting distinction for me. I feel my conversations with high school students can sometimes be playful but for us to integrate play can be more challenging – especially as we deal with such dark issues – and there is a need for integrity and sensitivity … for example – a hazard game in which one is managing a tsunami hazard when there are victims etc needs to be handled with care.

    If I was to offer one suggestion it is that the structure of the blog seemed to be a collection of interesting ideas about play but I wonder if it would have helped to have a structure to lead the reader through? So the subheadings were great way markers – and you started with a definition and ended on your own personal challenge to yourself, but the middle bit could have usefully had some more signposting? for example – Why does play matter? Is play just for children? This is a minor thought – so feel free to ignore…!

    Thanks again for your post.

    • Thank you so much for stopping by to comment! I really appreciate hearing your thoughts as a result and I agree with you regarding the structure. I often find I have so many ideas on a subject and want to cram them all in, so I will definitely think about how to build them for more flow next time. Not having written for a while and not being an English teacher this will be somewhat challenging so any advice would be gratefully received!

  2. hovnewdelhi says:

    As we hear more and more about “hack making” and the other movements around self-directed learning, it’s posts like this that keep the idea of learning through “play” centered within the conversation. Nicki, I really appreciate your thoughts on learning a new tool through play – this allows the learning to find all the ways a tool works, not just what is suggested. This mindset is what self-directed learning and the progressive thinking around hackerspaces a safe place to hit dead-ends and start ideas over.

    • Thank you so much for your comment, I am so grateful for you stopping in to read it! I am really intrigued about hackerspaces – can you tell me more or have you blogged about it?

  3. Carrie Zimmer says:

    Ciao bella! You’ve gathered so many great resources here and I’d love to help myself learn how to play more! Since it’s too late to register for the 100 day challenge online, I’ll have to see if I can find the motivation to do it regardless. I’d love to work on my brush lettering skills…and practicing every day would definitely help!

    • Hi Carrie!
      Thank you so much for your comment. It is so difficult to commit to finding even 10 minutes a day isn’t it?! It sounds ridiculous but we are such busy people that making time for ourselves seems so self indulgent! Do it – I cannot wait to see how you get on!

  4. Joel Bevans says:

    Hi Nicki,
    Thanks for your inspiring article. I love the fact you have so many amazing resources about play all in one place. There is so much good stuff here. I will be checking back here later!
    Your article really resonates with me as I am working as a K2 teacher. It is my first year teaching at this Grade level, having previously taught in older grades. I moved grades because I really wanted to get more play based learning back into my teaching and I must say it is like a breath of fresh air working with the youngest learners at the school. Like you say play is just what they do. They learn so much through play.
    As teachers we are driven by what we need to teach but I think that incorporating more play in our teaching and learning will only help students and teachers. I have found that really knowing your curriculum and bring able to carefully think and plan for more organised play and free play has really helped me this year. I know that working with Kindergarten students is very different to High School Students but if all teachers ( and schools) really valued play and gave opportunities to play. Then maybe just maybe children could still play freely.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and resources. It has certainly got me thinking.
    All the best,

    • Hi Joel,
      What a kind comment, thank you so much. I am really happy to connect and learn from you as one who can apply play theory each day. We do get so bogged down with the content that this aspect, unlike in Finland, is largely forgotten about. I am dearly hoping that more MS or HS teachers can chip in to help me grapple with the actual logistics of bringing in more play so that we can benefit or students and their learning more. I would love to hear how you have incorporated play intentionally or how it has changed the learning in your classroom.
      Thanks again for your kindness (and your tweet!).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s