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How to Incorporate Play into Learning

Jean Piaget said, "Play is the work of childhood." Children are naturally drawn to play and playfulness. As educators, we can use this natural instinct and incorporate play into learning, to increase engagement and maximize effectiveness in our teaching.

Shelle Soelberg, founder and creator of Let's Play Music, defines play this way: Play is laughing, enjoying oneself, being silly, using make believe, using more than one sense, and often play is associated with peers. Play allows for experimentation and freedom. There aren’t a lot of pre-defined guidelines. It allows for repetition, and for mistake making.

While we often think of play for preschool aged children, play can be incorporated in the classroom through elementary school and beyond. Let's explore how we can use each of these ideas to incorporate more playfulness into education.

Play is Silly.

As adults, we often know what needs to be done, and we can be serious about accomplishing tasks. Children don't think that way. They thrive on silliness. We can use this to our advantage when we infuse a little silliness into the way we talk and teach.

For example, kids enjoy correcting adults. One way to use silliness is to purposely use the wrong word and wait for the children to correct you. Adults can put things in the wrong place or "forget" what they need to be doing. Children have fun with this kind of playfulness and are more likely to stay engaged with the lesson being taught.

Play Uses More than One Sense.

Play engages children because they are using many of their senses: seeing, hearing, feeling and more. When children can get our of their seats and move around, it brings an element of play. Some subjects, like music, naturally lend themselves to full body movement, but there are others we may not think of. For example, children can get out of their seats and use their bodies during math to physically show if a number is greater than or less than. They can manipulate blocks or other items to count.

In addition to movement, we can also incorporate other senses: adding music or rhythm to let children "hear" their vocabulary words, incorporating science activities using taste and smell, teaching history or social studies by adding in cultural foods.

Play Uses Make Believe.

Kids love to pretend to be someone else. We can incorporate this into a learning setting by teaching a subject and letting our kids act it out. For example, this can be done by reading a book that takes place in another time period, and then letting children act out a scene from the book or a scene that could have taken place in that time period.

Make believe can also be encouraged with creative writing, props or invented scenarios that allow children to use their imaginations.

Play is Often Associated with Peers

Interactions with other children open children up to the idea of play. Educators can make sure that group work allows the option of playfulness and fun. Play is often associated with peer interactions, and this play can go beyond recess to the learning environment in the classroom.

Children can teach each other, laugh with each other, create projects together and work in partners.


What if we put this baking soda with this vinegar? What would happen? Play allows for discovery. Children start to play not knowing the outcome. Play allows them to learn and find out as they go along. Play allows for mistakes. It's okay when children don't know at the beginning what will happen when you combine baking soda and vinegar. They learn by doing, making mistakes, and trying again.

Shell Soelberg says, "A lot of play is mistake making, which is so important in the learning process, because it eliminates any punishment, shame or judgment. There are lots of discoveries allowed in play."

Play is Repetitious

Children often want to read the same book over and over again. They often play the same game, with the same rules over and over. Each time they repeat something, they are learning from it and experiencing it all over again. Education can follow this same pattern, going back and repeating ideas and concepts in a fun way to reinforce learning.

Though play might not come as naturally to adults, when we work to include play in the classroom, we will become more effective educators. Children thrive in an environment where play is incorporated in the classroom.

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