Three Reasons to Include Play in Your Classroom

Three Reasons to Include Play in Your ClassroomI attended the NWEA Fusion Central conference (July 7-9, 2015) and was delighted at the opportunity to learn, meet, and greet partners both known and unknown (and even a few co-workers!). While the sessions were jam-packed with learning experiences, it was Dr. Tony Wagner, the keynote speaker on the first day, who caught my attention and kept my mind wondering about a simple, four-letter word: Play. He spoke of play as one of the three ways to create innovators – the other two being passion and purpose. I have always included play as part of my instructional practice, knowing that this was a “naturalistic” way to develop students’ language skills, but Dr. Wagner took this activity to a new level for me.

1. Structured play contributes to cognitive skills and keeps learners engaged

Exploring this idea, I began thinking about the components of play and what happens when we are engaged with something that we find enjoyable – and what this might look like in the classroom. This made me recall a text that I read many years ago called Flow. Flow is a psychological concept developed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (say: ME-high CHECK-zent-me-high) that focuses on the way we think and behave when we are engaged in optimal experiences. In other words, how do we think and feel when our work becomes play? What causes this transition?

Flow results in play which pushes students towards their goals

Csikszentmihalyi suggests that Flow is achieved when three conditions are met:

  • we experience complete involvement in the activity we are engaging in
  • the activity helps us achieve a goal that we have set
  • the activity provides us with active feedback regarding our progress towards the goal

In other words, we know where we are going, why we want to get there, and how what we are currently doing is helping us to reach our destination. As I think about Flow, I see, not only the concept of play that Dr. Wagner spoke about, but also his ideas of passion and purpose. Flow combines all three.

This brought up the concept of Gamification. Would this be something that could be used to engage students today? I know that classrooms have been using this concept for a while, so I began to think about the benefits of Gamification and how its components contribute to what Dr. Wagner referred to as a way to “create innovators.”

2. Gamification provides challenges, feedback, and choice related to individual goals

The concept of Gamification is that game-like design and game-like elements are used in non-game contexts. For example, each time that I login to my LinkedIn account, I am reminded of the number of contacts that I have, the number of times that I have logged in, and the elements that I have completed in my profile. I am then encouraged to complete more of my profile, add new contacts, and login more often. LinkedIn is keeping track of my activity and giving me feedback on what I have accomplished and what I still need to work on, all in the context of establishing a “next quest” for me. This feedback is just what I need to keep me aligned with my goals. Even when I choose not to complete a recommended activity, I have consciously considered this behavior in relation to the outcome (or goal) that I have set for myself. So, in my mind, Gamification can be summarized as a medium that provides opportunities for engagement, feedback on the quantity and quality of the engagement, and provides structure and exploration that fall within my capability so that it encourages continued pursuit. Or, should I just say that it has found my Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)?

3. Students working on real life problems that are posed within their ZPD and that are receiving feedback from formative assessment are working towards Flow.

With all of these ideas still rolling around in my head, I begin to consolidate them by realizing that when I have students working in their ZPD on tasks that are important to them (real-life problems) and provide them with feedback on their progress towards their goals (through formative assessment), I already have the foundation for creating Flow in their environment, thus making learning “play” instead of work. Happy with myself for synthesizing these skills, I walked into the next Fusion session,  a demonstration of Skills Navigator, being released by NWEA this fall. Skills Navigator is a tool that has been designed for the purpose of identifying a students’ mastered and missing skills and can be used for the response to intervention process. I was very pleased to see that the program has incorporated elements of Gamification into its core which creates a game-like environment for student engagement.

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