Focus on Play and Engage Students of All Ages

Teachers everywhere are implementing gamification in their classroom. This educational trend has grown very quickly especially considering that the Merriam-Webster online dictionary lists the term’s first use as happening in 2010. The upswing in Gamification, though, is just one small part of the growing awareness of the importance of play in education and child development. Early educators have always understood that play helps students explore their environment and interact with others in materials in imaginative ways. Let’s build on what those educators know and take a look at the trends around play and specifically, gamification, and figure out how you can get on board and implement some new strategies in your classroom.

The Importance of Play

It is generally agreed upon that there are two large categories of types of play. Free play is the make-believe type of play that children come up with on their own. It is entirely free of adult guidance or intervention. Children use their imaginations to turn one object into another and they make up their own rules about how that play progresses. Guided play, on the other hand, has more adult intervention. It has been carefully planned in order to allow adults to supervise and observe a child’s curiosity and creativity. Guided play is often used in inquiry-based classroom where teachers use activities like modeling, role-play, projects, and centers. However, no matter the type, play is important for several reasons. It builds capacities like a memory, self-regulation, and oral language skills. It also helps students understand how to navigate social situations.

Gamification is one type of guided play. In this model, teachers use video game design principles to engage students in new learning scenarios. Students go on a quest in order to learn new information. Along the way, they earn points by completing certain tasks or playing the game for a certain amount of time. The more experience a student has in a game, the more points they earn. They also earn badges when they’ve completed certain achievements. Badges are one way that gamification engages students in continuous play. They can be randomly awarded to prolong student interest. Gamification also includes leveling up. In the classroom, this means the content gets more difficult and challenges students to continue their learning.

Trends in Play and Gamification

As an educator, you’re surely aware that children’s playtime has been decreased and replaced instead with a rigorous and sometimes non-age appropriate levels of instruction and standardized testing. Even kindergartners are held to strict academic standards that limits their playtime. Twenty years ago, the students in the primary grades spent much of their time playing but now formal education starts at ages four and five. Researchers of child development describe this trend as “a misunderstanding of how children learn.” They argue that education policy needs to start paying attention to the science that promotes play as a necessary part of child development.

While physical play seems to be disappearing, other types of play are being introduced in the form of gamification. Programs like Classcraft help teachers create personalized role-playing games for their students. Other applications already do the work for teachers. Take, Duolingo, for example. They provide a gamified way to learn foreign languages. And apps like Kahoot! help teachers add game-like elements to their lessons using a question and answer platform.

Add More Play to Your Day

If you are ready to get started with gamification, try using one of the apps or programs mentioned above. Start small! You don’t have to turn your entire curriculum into a quest. Pick one unit in one subject area and start there.

If you’re curious about ways to add more traditional play in your classroom, look no further! Try:

    1. Taking students on a nature hike (guided play)
    2. Giving students Play-Doh or modeling clay and seeing what they make (free play)
    3. Implementing 20% Time (guided play)
    4. Singing songs (guided play)
    5. Adding an extra recess to your week (free play)
    6. Stocking an area of the room with art supplies like beads, glue, paper, paints, etc. and give students time to create (free play)
    7. Including movement in your lessons by including actions related to content (guided play)
    8. Borrowing blocks from primary teachers and give students free time to build (free play)
    9. Implementing “free time” (free play)
    10. Building or visiting a makerspace (free/guided play)
    11. Doing improv activities with students (guided play)

Whatever form it may take in your classroom, play is an important, yet often forgotten, element of learning for children of all ages. Even small changes toward a more playful classroom environment can make a big different. Set aside fifteen minutes for play this week!

Amanda Ronan is an Austin-based writer. After many years as a teacher, Amanda transitioned out of the classroom and into educational publishing. She wrote and edited English, language arts, reading, and social studies content for grades K-12. Since becoming a full-time writer, Amanda has worked with a diverse set of clients, ranging from functional medicine doctors to design schools to moving companies. She blogs, writes long-form articles, and pens YA and children's fiction. Her first YA series, My Brother is a Robot, is slated for release by Scobre Educational Press in September 2015.