4 ways leaders can create playful teaching and learning environments

We can’t expect teachers to craft meaningful playful learning environments for students if they aren’t given the freedom to play and explore in their own practice.
Louisa Rosenheck
Louisa Rosenheckhttps://kahoot.com/
Louisa Rosenheck is director of pedagogy at the game-based learning platform, Kahoot! She also co-founded the Playful Journey Lab at MIT.

As the school year gets into gear, you can anticipate lunchroom conversations around how to best engage and excite students in the new year. We know student engagement is critical to learning—and, I’m heartened by increased chatter around the value of play in learning—but, it’s not just students who can benefit. This year, after the pandemic has made teaching incredibly challenging and record numbers of teachers are burnt out and leaving the profession, enabling playful teaching could be a powerful way to reignite joy in the classroom.

We know that playful, creative learning can build important holistic skills and help students “leapfrog” forward in their education. Teachers themselves have noticed the benefits of play and student-centered learning for engaging and motivating their students. But the benefits of play to teachers themselves have been, perhaps, less embraced.

Yet, there’s plenty of evidence that play can have a significant impact on your work. In the book Primed to Perform, authors Neel Doshi and Lindsay McGregor examine highly successful companies like Southwest Airlines, Apple, and Whole Foods to understand what motivates employees, and ultimately a culture of success. They describe a “motive spectrum,” with play being the motive most closely connected to people’s actual work.

When you experience play in your work, you are motivated by the act of doing the work, with some part of that experience being intrinsically enjoyable. For many teachers, that joy comes from the love of working with students and making a difference in their lives. Sadly, with so many extrinsic demands added onto teachers’ workloads in recent years, it has become thankless and joyless for many educators. However, given the opportunity to teach in playful ways, they may be able to reconnect with that meaning and fulfillment.

We can’t expect teachers to craft meaningful playful learning environments for students if they aren’t given the freedom to play and explore in their own practice.

‘Four freedoms of play’

Play is not a one-size-fits-all approach. It must be tailored to the classroom culture and iterated to fit students’ needs and interests. No one can facilitate a play experience perfectly on the first try. For this reason, teachers must be given license to continually experiment and adjust—to play with their teaching practices—until they find the right approach for their learners. Administrators and districts need to trust teachers, giving them the time, space, and autonomy for this type of playful teaching.

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Playful teaching has the potential to benefit schools in two main ways—by increasing teachers’ motivation and fulfillment, and by enabling them to deliver better, more student-centered learning experiences. So what might this look like in practice? Scot Osterweil’s four freedoms of play describe what goes into meaningful playful learning, and similarly, the same freedoms can be used to describe the necessary elements of playful teaching.

For school leaders looking to transform their school culture this year, here are four ways we can create playful teaching environments:

  1. Freedom to experiment: Teachers should have freedom to experiment with new pedagogies and approaches, even if they don’t yet know how it will work out with their students, what additional scaffolding may be needed, etc. Experimentation is a huge part of playing with new ideas, and the best way to innovate. A classroom is a great place to do this because teachers get immediate feedback and can adjust in real-time. For instance, a teacher might try remixing a project-based learning unit with a game like Minecraft, challenging students to design and build their ideal city as an exploration into urban planning. The teacher would experiment with the balance between researching and building in-game, to figure out how best to utilize a new game-based pedagogy.
  2. Freedom to fail: Teachers should be recognized for taking risks and “failing forward” in their teaching. We teach students to not be afraid of failure, and to have a growth mindset, and the same should hold true for teachers. Right now, many teachers are incentivized to keep doing what they’ve always done, despite a growing understanding that those approaches are not serving all students. Giving teachers the space to fail and iterate on their practices might mean sharing failures in faculty meetings and celebrating the subsequent iterations that lead to better, more personalized learning.
  3. Freedom to try on identities: In order to develop their teaching practices and push them forward, teachers need to be able to see themselves as new kinds of teachers, even before they are fully confident in those identities. This could mean seeing how it feels to be a maker teacher, or a teacher who believes in un-grading, for example. Getting used to seeing yourself in a new way is an important component of play, and of developing new competencies, which can be fulfilling and benefit students.
  4. Freedom of effort: Teachers should have the freedom to decide how best to teach their students, and which new practices they want to play with. Their expertise should be respected and valued within the school community so that everyone feels autonomy and a sense of agency. This might mean teachers doing different things, such as one teacher using Minecraft if that game resonates with their students, and another having students build with 3D printers if that’s an area that sparks excitement in the classroom. Current school systems are not always set up to give teachers this kind of agency, but administrators can find at least small ways to enable this element of playful teaching.

Bringing more joy to the classroom

What will it take to reshape schools into places where playful teaching is not only allowed but encouraged? Ideally, school leaders and districts will play a key role in helping to create time and space to collaboratively build a culture of playful teaching.

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Even without extra time, building a community of teachers who share the ways they are playing with their teaching practices is possible. This can foster an important mindset shift about what good teaching looks like, and each teacher’s journey toward that goal. Sharing the journey with students and talking to them about how their teachers are experimenting, failing, and playing is a powerful reflective practice as well.

While we often talk about students needing to be given agency and opportunities for play and creativity, the fact is that teachers need that just as much. It is essential for them to feel valued and fulfilled, and to be able to do their best teaching. This makes playful teaching and the necessary support essential elements in bringing more joy to everyone in the classroom.

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