Playful Learning

Play is an essential part of the human experience (Bains & Slutsky, 2009, Caine, 2011, Frost, 1998, Russ, 2003, Smolucha, 1992, Vygotsky, 1978, Warner, 2008). Yet play is often ignored or devalued inside learning environments (Frost, Russ). Neuroscientific studies indicate the highest quality learning occurs when the brain is engaged in four activities: Gathering, reflecting, creating, and testing which all occur when a human is engaged in play (Caine, Zull, 2004).  Identifying learning as an emotional and brain-based entity, neuroscientist James Zull writes:  “Learning should feel good, and the student should become aware of those feelings (Zull, 2004).  

Vygotsky describes the play as the leading factor in the development and provides ideas about the development of play (1978).  He cites play as an impetus to encourage learners to push themselves forward in development and into the next zone of proximal development. “In the play, a child is always above his average age, above his daily behavior; in play it is as though he were a head taller than himself” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 14).  He claims the development of play begins with modeling, is driven by both process and goal-oriented pleasure, and aids with the development of cognitive skills, especially inner dialogue, as the learner designs specific rules to guide the play in ever complicated manners (1978).  Finally, Vygotsky concludes that “in play a new relationship is created between . . . situations in thought and real situation” (1978, p. 18).


“Play enriches the quality of life,” claim authors Bain and Slutsky in Developing the Sixth Sense, Play, and the statement works as a thematic description of their work (2009, p. 99). The authors describe the manners in which traditional teaching methods have de-valued the practice of play as a learning tool:  “Today, any activity that does not directly contribute to enhancing the quality of the bottom line –the test scores of students- has become suspect (Bains & Slutsky, 2009, p. 97). Yet, play, they argue, has been show to affect creativity, cooperation, openness, and intelligence in positive manners (Bains & Slutsky, 2009). Play is advocated as a means to authentically engage students, especially at the beginning of a unit, by creating emotional ties to learning in a fun and low-stress manner (Bains & Slutsky, 2009).   Ultimately, the authors conclude, “high standards and academic rigor, while laudable goals, cannot be achieved without voluntary participation of the students themselves; ” such goals can be achieved by implementing play as part of the formal academic experience (Bains & Slutsky, 2009, p. 99).

Grant, Hutchison, Hornsby, and Brooke who, in 2008, provided Art instruction for non-Art teachers with the understanding those teachers would curate art-based learning in their classrooms state:  “We observed teachers in the program became more ‘artist-like’ in that they encouraged playful activities, they allowed time for individual and group exploration, thinking, and response; they encouraged collaborative talk.  Teachers found that play and story was a generative of language and that through play and story under-achieving students became socially confident and articulate” (2008, p. 68-69).  It would seem, that for the teachers in the program, the usage of creative and art-based play allowed for learners to not only become empowered, but also helped for instruction to be more open-ended and inclusionary which lead to more profound learning. It does, however, beg the question:  What is it about play that helped the teachers with literacy?


Leonardo Da Vinci is one of the most widely recognized artists in the world. “His knowledge of physics was superficial, yet he managed to design an experimental helicopter. He had read less than a first year medical student about physiology, yet he discovered arteriosclerosis . . . What is it that makes a person so creative?” (Mutanen, 2008, p. 3). I have heard it asked why there no modern day equivalents to Leonardo Da Vinci.  Surely today we live in a world much more advanced than that of Da Vinci; and, equitable education is much more available for most children than ever before. So, indeed, why is there no modern equivalent to Da Vinci?  I believe it is because Da Vinci was profoundly involved in the process of creation in such a manner he expanded his mind through creativity and through his fearlessness in the face of mistakes.  We know such an exercise as play. The teachers in the Grant, Hutchison, Hornsby, and Brooke’s study were interacting with the world in a manner similar to Da Vinci:  they were allowing students room for mistakes and for room for empowerment and learning.  Literacy, a skill that many students meet with trepidation and fear, is rendered inviting in the fact of the inclusion of a playful and art-rich classroom environment.

Curating a Playful Learning Environment

Curators of playful learning environments do more than creating warm, welcoming classrooms. A playful learning environment is a communal space wherein all participants are encouraged and expected to query, reflect, and contribute.  Instead of simply decorating with inspirational and celebratory elements, a playful instructor utilizes visual and text-based decorative elements that are provocative and encourage a natural curiosity of the not only the status quo but also the world at large.

Such environments not only are encouraging of all types of learning; they are shown to help develop stronger personal narratives which in turns leads more profound literacy skills.

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