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What would learning through play look like in an Indian classroom?

If you understand how the six features of learning through play need to show in your classroom of 30+ children, the relevance of play in learning may feel a little less intimidating than our play experts want it to be.

Most of us agree that children learn through play; many of us feverishly advocate its scope in the classroom. However, if we are to believe what our play experts say during webinars about learning through play, it is obvious that not many of them clearly understand what can constitute play within the four walls of an Indian classroom. Most of them seem to have ‘free play’ (For the uninitiated, there is a note on what Free Play is, later in this reading.) in mind, while talking about learning through play.

Free Play is intimidating for an average Indian teacher, considering that they work with 30 children or more in their classrooms, alone. Besides that, research categorically writes off the utility and effectiveness of free play in a classroom setting, though it is indirectly beneficial for a child. In this context, what should it look like when children learn through play in an Indian classroom, where a single teacher works with more than 30 children for 40 minutes or less to teach a subject?

To gain clarity on how the mechanics of learning through play can work in the context of the complex dynamics of your 30-student-strong classroom and influence the quality of learning in it, we need to explore the following two questions. One, what are the different ways in which children learn through play? Two, what are the features of the kind of learning through play that works in an Indian classroom?

Question One

What are the different ways in which children learn through play?

Play researchers agree on one thing, even if they do not agree on a single definition of play: "Play is notoriously difficult to define." Lev Vygotsky, the Russian psychologist known for his sociocultural theory of learning, considered play as a situation that strengthens a child's cognitive and emotional functions as they operate within their zone of proximal development. On the other hand, Jean Piaget, the Swiss psychologist who tried to explain the four stages of cognitive development, considered play as something that children engaged in to assimilate the external world to their mental constructs rather than to learn something new. The debate on 'learning through play' initiated by Vygotsky and Piaget raged on for decades, with other education researchers siding with either of them, to answer a fundamental question: Is play only about the pleasure that a child derives while engaging in it, or is it more about learning than pleasure?

In 2018, Jennifer M. Zosh and eight play researchers decided to review the available literature on play and synthesize the insights on 'learning through play' over the last few decades. This literature review helped them conclude that "play may take different forms and serve many different functions." They came to view play as a spectrum and categorized play into four types based on its form and purpose:

  • Free Play: The child initiates and directs Free Play, with no adult to guide or scaffold the process. There is no specific and defined learning goal when a child is engaging in Free Play. However, a large body of research confirms that Free Play benefits children and leads to cognitive and social development.

  • Guided Play: If an adult chooses the context of play and allows the child to direct how they play, it becomes Guided Play. In Guided Play, you will find an adult supporting the child by setting up the space or giving instructions for the activity. Most Learning Games fall under the ambit of Guided Play.

  • Co-opted Play: When a child initiates play, and an adult intervenes to set a context for it and directs the process, we call it co-opted play. Though Co-opted Play displays elements of play, experts think that it reduces to being just a playful version of Direct Instruction. In 1999, Amy Buckman called it 'chocolate-covered broccoli,' during her often-quoted presentation for the Game Developers’ Conference in California.

  • Playful Learning: Discovery-based, active learning is considered as Playful Learning. In 2011, Alfieri Brooks, Aldrich, and Tenenbaum analyzed 164 studies to conclude that Assisted Discovery Approach to learning or Active Learning that emphasized discovery, which is similar to Guided Play, yielded better learning outcomes.

Question Two

What are the six features of Playful Learning?

When you consider the four different types of play, it is abundantly clear that Playful Learning or Assisted Discovery Approach to learning works well in most classrooms. When compared to Direct Instruction, Assisted Discovery Approach worked way better in most learning areas, including math, computer skills, and science. Free Play was found to be less effective, often less effective than Direct Instruction, in a classroom setting. This brings us to the next question: if you want Playful Learning or Assisted Discovery Approach to work in a classroom, what should learning look like during your lesson?

Feature One

Your lesson must be a playful experience

We often define playfulness in comparison to our notion of the opposite of play, which is work. However, research on learning through play suggests that work and play can be the same if we build in elements like joy, curiosity, and surprise into work. The word 'playfulness' in Playful Learning refers to the nature of the learning experiences a teacher provides their students during a lesson. Lloyd P. Rieber suggests that, "A simple way of understanding serious play in education is with the advice of ‘experience first, explain later.' A teacher who follows this advice looks for ways to engage learners in some meaningful (playful) experience as early on as possible." Please note that the playful experiences that you provide your students in the classroom must be intrinsically motivating and generate positive emotions in the learner.

Play experts in our country push the notion that the experiences you provide your students in the classroom must be dramatically elaborate and highly material-driven. It does not have to be. Even reading a piece of text can emerge as a playful experience if you build in elements of joy. curiosity, and surprise into the process of reading. The ability to incorporate an element of playfulness into what your students are learning is your key to unlock Playful Learning; allowing students to imagine and make mistakes fearlessly is its secret. This is why Saralea Chazan recommended, “Play occupies a realm outside of everyday events. It has to do with imaginings and trial action. Anything is possible.” Considering every learning experience you provide your students as a ‘trial action’ will go a long way in helping you set a playful feel to the lesson you teach.

Feature Two

Your lesson must pivot around active learning

As mentioned earlier, active learning is at the core of Playful Learning. Your students learn when you allow them to actively process the information you are presenting and construct perspectives about the world based on it. As Louis Rice puts it, "The shift from learning as direct transmission to a constructive process requires that there is no single or universal truth, but that there are many alternative versions of events." Therefore, your job as a teacher is to allow your students to ask questions about the information in front of them and share their perspectives based on the playful experiences you provide them.

In 2011, Elizabeth Bonawitz and her fellow researchers set out to understand the role of a teacher in active learning, using a newly designed toy that none of the children they were working with had seen before. This toy had several not-so-obvious features. For example, hidden somewhere in one of the plastic tubes on the toy was a button that, when pressed, turned on a light fixed on top of the toy. If you pulled another tube on the toy, it made a squeaking sound. Somewhere in one of its tubes was a mirror that reflected the reverse image of something you were looking at if you looked through the tube from a certain angle. Bonawitz gave this toy to two groups of children. Both groups had an adult working with them. In one group, the adult demonstrated a few features of the toy, and the children passively watched them before trying their hands on the toy, way after the lesson. In the second group, the toy was given to the children, the adult 'accidentally revealed' a feature as they examined it together and then excused themselves from the scene to allow the children to explore the toy on their own. The researchers discovered that the second group was more likely to explore the toy and figure out its additional features in comparison with the first group. If you can provide your students with playful experiences that allow them to process the information on their own, where you tend to 'accidentally reveal a learning' sometimes and leave the rest to them to figure out, you have mastered the art of Playful Learning.

Feature Three

Your lessons must be sustainably engaging

We often mistake Playful Learning for hands-on learning. Playful learning is more about mind-on learning than hands-on learning. Though the hands-on nature of play is a necessary part of the process, it is not mandatory that all play must be hands-on. However, being mind-on is ubiquitous for play in any form. Based on this assumption, your job as a teacher is to make sure that your students stay minds-on throughout a learning experience. Researchers agree that elements of playfulness, like joy, curiosity, and surprise, can make your lesson highly engaging, allowing children to resist distraction and stay on task. Lessons that provide spaces for children to investigate and question, actively process information, and reflect on their thinking and doing, naturally ensure student engagement.

Ross Flatt, former assistant principal at Quest to Learn School, explains how he ensured his lessons were engaging end to end: “Students learn best when they are engaged, active, and immersed in deep learning experiences. As a high school history teacher, I was fortunate enough to have the flexibility to allow my students to pretend to be Spartan warriors, investigate the murder of Julius Caesar in a Roman Detective agency, explore the judicial system by putting the Big Bad Wolf on Trial, and publish magazines in the style of the 1920s. Not only did these immersive projects and experiences make my classroom a more exciting place to be, but my students were able to grapple with complex historical content in meaningful ways. More importantly, students were able to demonstrate on a regular basis, problem solving, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration – skills far more important for students to master than specific pieces of content.”

Feature Four

Your lesson must scaffold the process of meaning-making

In 2011, Jacob Habgood and Shaaron Ainsworth created two versions of a computer game. They asked a few primary school children to play the first version and use their existing sense of division to divide 'zombies' and destroy them. In the second version, they did not have to divide zombies to destroy them. Jacob and Shaaron asked both groups to solve a few division problems at the end of each level. Since the first version weaved the idea of division meaningfully into the game, the first group could solve the division problems at the end of each level better than the second group.

We learn by making meaning. The process of meaning-making is about gaining concept clarity by actively constructing new knowledge on top of what we already know and integrating fresh perspectives about what we already believe. Since learning is about building on an existing schema, its success heavily depends on the relevance of what we are learning to what we already know or believe about a concept. Research suggests that if what they are trying to learn is relevant and interesting, students are intrinsically motivated to make meaning. Your job as a teacher is to succeed in making new knowledge relevant and interesting.

Feature Five

Your lesson must provide opportunities for peer-to-peer interaction & collaboration

Lev Vygotsky suggested that we use language to construct knowledge and develop perspectives. Language thrives in social contexts. One’s ability to communicate and reason ensures deeper learning. Studies show that students who practice thinking and speaking in collaboration excel at exploratory conversations, assimilating and accommodating new knowledge better than their counterparts who do not get a space in the classroom to interact and collaborate with their peers.

Playing with peers supports learning. When you allow an element of playfulness in the classroom, you must enable peer-to-peer interaction. Combine joy, curiosity, and surprise with high-quality social interaction in your classroom (between you and your students and between students themselves), and you get a lesson naturally poised to help your students develop cognitively, emotionally, and socially. Is that not the 'holistic development' all of us talk about in schools?

Feature Six

Your lesson must provide for repeated attempts to learn the same concept

Have you ever observed children as they engage in complex games? Play is all about iterations. Children come up with a theory (a hypothesis) about what to do to succeed in a game, and then they try it out. Usually, they fail when they try their theory out for the first time. They consult their friends or an adult about what needs to be done or reflect on what they did, modify their theory about succeeding in the game, and try again. After several iterations of their approach, they master the game. Consider the iterative aspect of play as you plan your lessons and provide safe spaces for children to iterate during your lessons.

The quality of their discoveries during learning is equal to the number of opportunities you allow your students to tinker. Iteration alone does not make learning any better. However, when you make an allowance for several learning attempts in a playful context with opportunities for active processing and peer-to-peer interaction, learning sticks.

About the Author

Sojo Varughese

Sojo Varughese is an educator with more than a decade and a half of rich and varied on-field experience behind him in Teacher Training, Instructional Coaching, Academic Audit, Education Technology Integration, and School Improvement. Over these years, working with international, national & state board schools (government and private), he would have by now trained and coached 75000+ school leaders and teachers across India and the Middle East in contemporary classroom teaching, student assessment, and school management practices. Sojo Varughese is the co-founder of Innerkern and you can read more about his work here.


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