Why learning should be more playful

By Marc Fuster Rabella

Analyst, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

Michael Sandel may not be a household name nowadays, but for a brief moment back in the early 2010s, this 66-year-old philosophy professor was as famous as a rock star. Back then, massive open online courses (MOOCs)  were widely seen as one of the most promising avenues for raising  education levels worldwide. Justice, a course on moral philosophy that Sandel had been teaching to his Harvard students for years, quickly became one of the most popular of all.

How did Sandel make Kant’s categorical imperative sexy for so many people? The answer is quite simple: in his classes, the provocative examples and complex moral dilemmas posed feel like play; they are both challenging and fun.

In playful experiences, including play and playfulness, a state of mind that involve creativity, curiosity, sense of humour, pleasure and spontaneity, people struggle and enjoy themselves at the same time – a dynamic known in psychology as “flow”. This combination of feelings keeps people focused and engaged in problem solving, whether they’re trying to master a video game, improvising jazz music on the piano or joking around with friends.

Playful experiences are based on joy and intrinsic motivation, allowing people to invent, test and repeat without fear of failure. Individuals in a playful mindset self-regulate their effort in order to achieve their goals, using as many attempts as necessary and progressing at their own pace — in other words, learning.

We might take learning more seriously if it felt more like play.

The parallels between play and the conditions under which people naturally learn hold a key idea for education: we might take learning more seriously if it felt more like play. We take a closer look at this idea of “playful learning” in the latest Trends Shaping Education Spotlight. In this brief, we explore how policy makers and educational practitioners can leverage the underlying mechanics of play to more effectively support learners of all ages within and outside formal learning time.

The natural connection between play and learning is perhaps most evident in children. Research has long shown that play is a natural way to develop motor, cognitive, social and emotional skills. Not surprisingly, play is the main pillar of teaching and learning in early childhood education and care (ECEC) across many OECD countries. Yet as Professor Sandel’s course reminds us, playfulness contributes just as much to learning among older individuals – and this does not necessarily have to happen within the confines of formal schooling.

Educational practice – whether at schools or corporate offices, on playgrounds or in extracurricular activities – might therefore need to build on the pedagogical mechanics of play and games, leveraging  teaching and learning processes that involve and are meaningfully to all students. Under this approach, activities would be based on clear and challenging learning goals; and individuals would learn incrementally and through iteration, combining hands-on experience with immediate and ongoing feedback.

The challenge for educators, then, is to design comprehensive teaching practices that can create spaces for students’ agency, curiosity and enjoyment to flourish. In this way, teaching would support meaningful learning and student well-being. Some teachers are already making it easier to adopt such practices. A group of Danish teachers, for example, created a toolbox for playful learning observation and reflection, classroom management and learning environments design. Most essential for such practices to generalise, however, are adequate time and support for collegial reflection and teacher professional development opportunities.

Every student deserves to experience the satisfaction that comes with making sense of something, and contextualizing it within their own knowledge and the world around them. They should feel eager and excited to advance their understanding and develop it in other domains. Unfortunately, this sensation is all too rare for many students around the world, but a more playful perspective on teaching and learning can help make it the new normal. For Sandel’s fans, it certainly did.

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