Using Play as a Medium for Learning

This article was written for the Guardian Teacher Network and will appear there soon in a shorter version.

The use of play for developing children’s learning is a well-established feature of most early years settings. Visit a nursery, a reception, or many Year One classrooms and you will find ample opportunities for children to play, either alongside other children, with adults, or by themselves. Role-play corners are a common feature, and games, and construction toys are usually well resourced.

Most adults working in Early Years settings share the professional opinion, arrived at through study and experience, that play is a key pedagogical medium for learning. As a result they are careful to provide their students with plenty of opportunities to explore the curriculum through collaborative and exploratory play.

Unfortunately, as children move through school these opportunities begin to dry up. The pressures on teaching the formal aspects of the curriculum begin to take over and play, in its various forms, is pushed progressively further into the margins. Resources, spaces, and activities that create opportunities for learning through play decline until they almost disappear by the time children reach the top end of Key Stage 2.

In the early years, play is seen as something children do naturally as part of the way they find out about the world: discovering it through experience and experimentation. The best classrooms, it is argued, give children the time, space, and resources they need to find out things for themselves.

However, as they grow older attitudes to learning change and the focus shifts from discovery to academic study. As a consequence, play is marginalised and increasingly becomes something that happens outside the classroom on the school playing fields, organised and controlled by adults, and isolated from the rest of the curriculum. Gradually play inside the classroom is seen as something of a distraction: messy and unstructured, without direction or purpose.

This diminishing role of play as a medium for learning does not happen in every school, but where it does, it results in decreasing opportunities for teachers to plan effective lessons and for students to study in diverse and meaningful ways. Through play, using inquiry and drama strategies, students, can work in collaboration with their teachers to co-create imagined worlds and scenarios. These imaginary contexts can be used to create meaningful and exciting opportunities for students to study, apply, and expand their curriculum knowledge and understanding. Imagined (playful) contexts have the advantage of being safe and ‘penalty-free’, without the kinds of repercussions that exist in the real-world if things go wrong. They are like laboratories for learning.

The following list of activities is focused on using play as a medium for learning through the application of drama and inquiry. Each activity teaches a particular aspect of learning and links to a planning unit on the imaginative-inquiry website []. This website is a resource of free planning written by teachers for others teachers to trial, adapt, and use in their own classrooms.

1. Play for meaning-making: exploring ideas, looking at events, attitudes, and decisions from the point of view of others.
Activity: The Iceni people of the Settlement are faced with a dilemma: hide their Queen (Boudicca) or hand her over to the Roman army [Ref].

2. Play for practicing, rehearsing, and evaluating possible alternatives and choices:
Activity: The Titanic is beginning to sink: the captain knows there are not enough lifeboats for everyone on-board. What is he going to do? His officers wait for their orders. []

3. Play for dealing with conflict, making difficult decisions, coping with threats, and taking opportunities:
Activity: A team of landscape gardeners are given the job of building a memorial garden to remember a giant who was once selfish, but died a reformed character. Not everyone in the local community is happy. []

4. Play for practicing the use of authority, power, and responsibility:
Activity: We have captured a wolf, who has been threatening three little pigs. He is in a cage in the basement of our office. We can see him on our CCTV. What should we do with him? He looks bedraggled and unhappy. We wonder if he has a family to feed? []

5. Play for researching and applying knowledge:
Activity: An archaeology team are about to open an ancient Roman security box buried for two thousand years. What will they find inside? Students use classroom resources, topic-books, websites, and pre-prepared information sheets to create the contents of the box. []

6. Play for investigating and exploring ideas, processes, concepts, and phenomena:
Activity: The students are building a model of an animal park in the classroom: they are given various constraints and problems they will need to resolve in order for the park to work effectively. []

7. Play for building ‘ethical selves’ – opportunities for students to imagine what they would do in certain circumstances, what things would they consider, what risks would they take, and what values do they hold:
Activity: A climber is trapped high up on a mountain – she has a broken leg and the weather is getting progressively worse – the mountain rescue team (represented by the students) consider what is an acceptable level of risk. []

8. Play for building community, developing social bonds, and civic responsibility:
Activity: Settlers arrive in a new land. They search for a place to build a community. They discuss the best options geographically. They decide on a set of rules, and how to enforce them. They are faced with many challenges – famine, storms, invaders, wild-animals, illness and disease. They meet these challenges together. []

9. Play for developing cognitive-tools – imagination, critical-thinking, thinking creatively, problem-solving:
Activity: A team of explorers parachute onto an unexplored island. They spend their first night on the beach sleeping in tents. They are awoken in the middle of the night by strange and terrifying noises coming from the jungle. What should they do in the morning? []

10. Play for developing story-telling – narrative, characters, motivations, locations, tensions, and events:
Activity: A team of storytellers offer to help Queen Scheherazade by creating a new and exciting story each night to entertain her terrifying husband the King of Persia. []

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