What Happens When We Play

Never grow up. I don’t mean don’t become an adult with responsibility and the weight of the world on you shoulders. I simply mean … give yourself enough time to play. Play the fool. Goad. Shock. Laugh. Trip over something that isn’t there. Try something. And never be afraid to fail. That failure is useful too. It’s just another building block.  -Ricky Gervais

The inspiration:

I like my classroom loud and noisy. I like it when 20 kids are silent, focused on achieving something, with an undercurrent of energy almost visible. I like it when students listen to each other and have a conversation, with minimal input from me. I like it when my students don’t ask what their grade was on assignment, but ask what are we going to do next. If I’m bored in my classroom, its my fault. If my students are bored in my classroom it’s my fault. I like playing and experimenting and trying new things in my classroom and I love it when my students do the same.

I have been catching bits and pieces of the K12 Online Conference, intrigued with the idea that we need to be playing more in our classroom. So after watching Angela Meier’s pre-conference keynote The Sandbox Manifesto and George Couros’s session on Playing in Public, I decided to let my students play**.

Day 1: Play

The only instruction I gave my eighth graders was “Play”. They could play anything. If they wanted to go on Facebook they could. If they wanted to play with others they could. For the 20 minutes we had in class, they had to play**.

This is what they did:

  • Played catch, throwing a ball across the classroom
  • Wrote a poem
  • Played Modern Warfare
  • Played Tetris
  • Cut up a plastic ball and colored popcicle sticks to make modern art
  • Played pattycake
  • Danced
  • Arm wrestled
  • Played on Facebook
  • Played that game where you try to keep the balloon in the air for as long as possible

Overheard comments: “That was the fastest 20 minutes ever.” “Can you help me out (to a classmate).” “Let’s try this” “Want to play pattycake, Ms. Madrid?”
IMG_1507My takeaway from day 1:

My students can be loud. But they have the best laughs ever. And while at first the majority planned on jumping on the computer to play a game, most ended up moving and playing with others. Even those who played online, were talking with other people and trash talking and helping each other solve problems.

Day 2: Create

Only instruction was “Create”. For 50 minutes students had to create something. Anything. They would have to then have to share their creation with the rest of the class.

This is what they did:

  • Created a Minecraft scenario
  • Created a building on SketchUp
  • Created a dance routine
  • Created a logo and attempted to embed it with the picture-in-picture function on iMovie
  • Created a mash-up song and performance for the class
  • Created a poem and a short-story
  • Created a fort
  • Created a movie using stop-motion techniques
  • Create a paper plane

Overheard student comments: “I need more time!” “That was a fail”. “Hey, can you show me how to….” “Woah…that’s cool.” “Hey, Ms. Madrid…check this out.”

Learning strategies observed

  • Students recording themselves on PhotoBooth to see how their dance could be improved
  • Students trying repeatedly and failing over and over again
  • Students googling information when I couldn’t help them (which was most of the time)
  • Students moving between the role of expert in one genre and student in another
  • Brainstorming ways to make their creation better when they realized they had more time

My takeaways from day 2:

My students are talented. And brave.

IMG_1565When they shared their creations with the class they proudly admitted failures and literally sang and danced in class. They also demonstrated focus and a stick-to-it attitude that I often worry they don’t have in their academic lives. They can be amazingly supportive of each other. And they are dying for a chance to show off their talents to other people. They can work efficiently and productively. And they are all talented in different ways. And I finally learned what Minecraft is***. And they will take off their shoes at any given opportunity.

Day 3: Reflect

Students were given the words “Play, Create, Learn” and they had to reflect on their blogs on the past two days. I wanted them to be able to justify why playing is so important in the classroom. This is what they came up with:

While playing I felt a freedom to do what I wanted and I felt like I wasn’t troubled by the fact that if I mucked up I had to start again. If I did mess up, which I did, I could just start again and as I was not confined to one idea. Thomas****

I was in a group with Sammie and Go and we made a fort. From it we learned that even when there are limited resources, there is always a way to make something out of what you have, you just have to be creative. Georgia

However, personally I think it is very unnecessary to play during class, before I much rather just focus on studies (and create things, of course) than play. The double block for playing didn’t go by fast because I didn’t really have fun. This sounds terrible but I don’t know what fun is, to be honest. Adina

Mohima and I created a dance…It was so fun that we felt the time go fast really fast, probably because we were so concentrated. Shion

To be able to have fun, one way is bringing the idea of playing games and learning a lot of things physically. Then, those fun memories will lead to remembering the things we learned in class. Also because fun memories get stored into your brain in the long term memory section. This way, people who don’t participate in class discussions or people who are day dreaming during class will participate more. Go

My takeaway:

This was scary. It was scary when my students were under a pile of chairs and tables, which made up a fort. It was scary when admin walked by my doors and chaos reigned. It was scary when I wasn’t sure what they were up to.
IMG_1576I also know that we can’t just randomly play and create every day. The real challenge is to play with purpose, in relationship with the content and skills relating to MYP Humanities class. I’ve already experimented with new ways of presenting understanding and I need to continue to challenge my students to play AND learn. So, for the last two weeks before holidays, my students have been asked to create something about anything we have learned this past semester. They have been challenged to be as energized and as engaged as they were when they could just play without restrictions. But, we now have a benchmark for what engagement feels like and I don’t want to see anything less.

So far, students have made themselves into human versions of places of worship, created a Minecraft game that shows the differences in development for men and women, created a Hans Rosling style video on population growth, and written a poem about different religions. We’ve got one more week to see where it goes. This is challenging for all of us.  They are learning skills and working together. They are brainstorming and researching. They are roaming the hallways shooting video. They are throwing out ideas that don’t work. They are reflecting on the whole process. But, I’m not sure where exactly this will go next. And I think  I’m okay with that, though I have twinges of doubt. It’s still scary, but man, is it fun.


*None of what I’m going to say is particularly revolutionary. Elementary school teachers probably know this stuff backward and forward. In many ways, I was inspired by watching my elementary school teacher friends and colleagues work at playing. And while we play a fair bit in my classes, this was the first time I did a lesson where playing was the point.

**For more resources, including some research on why play is so important to learning, check out George Couros’s googledoc that goes along with his keynote.

*** I still don’t really get it. And the boys who like it don’t have the patience to teach it to me. But I’m starting to see it has educational value.

**** Thomas wrote a great post. Check it out if get the chance. It comes complete with a wordle and a TED talk on how they play at Google.

About Rebekah Madrid

MYP Humanities Instructor. International School Teacher in Japan. Google Certified Teacher. Apple Distinguished Educator. National Board Certified Teacher. Traveler & TV Watcher. This is where I write my thoughts about all of the above.
This entry was posted in COETAIL @YIS, MYP Humanities, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to What Happens When We Play

  1. Yes, yes, yes. I love it. The post, the idea, you and George. I will try this for sure at some point next term. Thanks for the great ideas and for sharing. Perfect. This is what I want my class to be like.

  2. Late response, but I hope you do try it out. I would love to compare notes!

  3. Kim Cofino says:

    It’s so great to see what they came up with – especially in the reflections. It is so obvious that we all learn when we play, and the freedom to fail is what makes it so fun. How do we bring this element into our everyday teaching and learning experiences? I’d love to find a way to try out a whole unit this way and to compare (get some “data”) to how things go with one group compared to another (not really fair since it’s not the same students, but you get the idea). What do you think?

  4. Adam says:

    Like others I, too, loved this post, Rebekah. I loved your comment about how your students are talented and brave. At the same time, it is evident that they have a good model in bravery for you. My first role in education (experiential ed) was hugely play oriented but that was greatly facilitated by having play identified as one of the primary objectives. It is also interesting to me how experiential mainstream classrooms have become in comparison to 20 years ago but how we still generally struggle to lighten-up.

    I wonder how brave we will need to be in education to have play squarely placed at the top of the pyramid, as opposed to relegated to something we do when we have a few minutes left at the end of a period. I also think how our facilities could change to help us be noisy and active. I think we’d spend more time outdoors, have fewer things in the way, and have more tools and raw materials around with less pre-made and pre-packaged.

    My six year old reminded me of these ideas this morning (trash day) when she saw me throw away an empty toilet paper roll – sacrilege!! I imagine you saw this video trailer when it was released last week but on the off chance you haven’t – http://vimeo.com/34233390 I am really excited for the full length film. Thanks for a very thought provoking post – full of great ideas!

  5. Pingback: GBL Presented at Learning 2.012 @ Beijing | Classroom Aid

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