The Playful Classroom: The What, Why and How of Play – By April Nickell

When was the last time you lost yourself in play? If you are like me, play can get lost in the shuffle of life. I have been studying play for a number of years, but it took me awhile to actively pursue it in my life. I have long since been convinced of the developmental value of play in the lives of children, yet it can be so hard to cultivate and foster play in our busy schedules both in the classroom and beyond. This blog series will explore and discuss the benefits of play, the decline of play and its consequences, then will offer ideas on how to promote playfulness in the classroom in such a way as to leverage the cognitive, social, emotional, and learning benefits of play.

I began studying play a number of years ago as a result of my own efforts to bring playfulness to classroom instruction. In my programs in NYC public schools, I could see the increase in engagement and motivation when children perceived classroom experiences as play. However, I didn’t always know what made it seem playful to them, nor did I always know how to add play into an already packed day. These are the questions I have been addressing over the years but to explore them we need to briefly define play and its benefits.

What is Play?

Brian Sutton Smith, a leading play scholar who spent his life studying play, wrote a book called The Ambiguity of Play, which in part discusses the amorphous quality of play. Play isn’t binary, as in something is play or not play. Things can be more or less playful. On one level, you know it when you are in it but when we try to define it things get tricky. Despite this there are a few key characteristics that most scholars agree with.[1][2][3]

• Is spontaneous and Voluntary (Self-chosen and self-directed)
• Has structure or rules (that come from the players)
• Has no extrinsic goals (the means are more valued than the ends)
• Includes active engagement (but not stressed)
• Elements of make-believe or in some way mentally removed from real life
• Is pleasurable and enjoyable (often includes a sense of getting lost in it where time passes differently like the concept of Flow)[4]

Fromberg and Bergen write in the intro to Play From Birth to Twelve, “Possibly the overriding attribute that is so gratifying and addictive about play is that it is intrinsically motivated, satisfying and empowering.” Many of today’s children have limited opportunities for the fullness of the above definitions, rather they spend much of their time in adult led activities (such as sports or dance or other classes) and in the era of high-stakes testing the classroom has less opportunities for play than in decades past. (See future blog about the decline of play and the rise of psychopathology in children.)

Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute of Play, argues that play is as natural a human phenomenon to humans as is sleep. He came to understand the value of play when he worked on a task force to understand mass murders and later alcoholics and in both groups he discovered play deprivation in childhood. (To hear his TED talk, click here). Play is essential to healthy development.

Historically, Play has been misunderstood from colonial times where play was seen as “moral laxity”, to industrialization during which time schools were created, up to the present with the nation’s focus on the bottom-line and observable benefits.[5] Although it is understandable that play became so disconnected with learning, it is also very unfortunate because play is so central to learning and healthy development. Below is a list of benefits of play from the Play=Learning website:[6]

Why Play?

Emotional benefits include…

  • enjoyment, fun, love of life
  • relaxation, release of energy, tension reduction
  • self-expression

Developmental benefits include…

Cognitive development:

  • creativity
  • abstract thinking
  • imagination
  • problem-solving
  • social cognition, empathy, perspective-taking
  • mastering new concepts

Affective development:

  • self-confidence
  • self-esteem
  • anxiety reduction
  • therapeutic effects

Social development:

  • cooperation
  • sharing
  • turn-taking
  • conflict resolution
  • leadership skill development (control of impulses and aggressive behavior)

Physical development:

  • gross motor experiences
  • fine motor experiences
  • physical challenges
  • self-help skills

Attentional development:

  • attention regulation
  • concentration
  • persistence

Language development:

  • communication skills
  • vocabulary
  • story telling
  • emergent literacy

Educational benefits include…

  • providing a meaningful context for children to learn concepts and skills;
  • making learning fun and enjoyable;
  • encouraging children to explore and discover together and on their own;
  • allowing children to extend what they are learning;
  • encouraging children to experiment and take risks;
  • providing opportunities for collaborative learning with adults and peers;
  • allowing for the practice of skills.

Today’s children spend 18% more time in school, 77% more time doing schoolwork, and 32% less time playing. In light of so many benefits, we are left with a challenge: How to bring more play into learning.[7] I most often find that no one is opposed to play, rather just unsure of how to fit it in, and how to maintain control while playing. These issues will be the focus of future blogs where I will share practical ideas and activities to bring playfulness into your classroom. First, I want to offer a few broad ideas to begin the journey toward your playful classroom.

How to Play
Tips for a Playful Classroom
1. Understand and believe in the benefits of play and its role in healthy development.
“Perceptive educators and scholars acquainted with the benefits of play realize that play contributes to learning and academic achievement, and is not a cause of their decline.”[8]
2. Recognize those benefits are not just for early education but for all children (and adults).
“Current emphasis on narrow perspectives of academic achievement has prohibited widespread acceptance of 8-12-year-olds right to play.”
3. Play yourself.
Play guru Bernard De Koven says “Playfulness is a gift and a choice that we often forget about but that it is the shortest road to happiness!” As we release the playful energy within us, we will begin to see opportunities to play everywhere including with students and curriculum.

4. Offer choice.
Research suggests that when children are able to choose an activity, they code it as play, whereas they code the same activity work when it is selected for them by an adult.[9]
5. Take play breaks.
Transitions can be a nice place for a quick 5 min game that is played for play’s sake. This quick activity, especially if it uses the whole body, can be enough to ignite the mind for the next block of seated focused coursework. Some game ideas are Simon Says, Table Pictionary or Charades, Zip, Zap, Zop, ball tossing games, slow motion tag, or a favorite of mine – Bibbity, Bibbity, Bop.
Or any of these warm up games used in improv-
I’m also pretty sure students will come up with many more ideas!

Honestly, sometimes play is intimidating and scary to me. It is spontaneous which makes it a little scary but that is also what makes it fun. I encourage you to journey with me through this blog series where I share specific examples of bringing more play into your life and your classroom!

[1] Fromberg, D. P., & Bergen, D. (Eds.). (2006). Play from birth to twelve: Contexts, perspectives, and meanings. Taylor & Francis.
[2] Gray, P. (2008). Freedom to Learn.
[3] Sutton-Smith, B. (2009). The ambiguity of play. Harvard University Press.
[5] Fromberg, D. P., & Bergen, D. (Eds.). (2006). Play from birth to twelve: Contexts, perspectives, and meanings. Taylor & Francis. P. 22
[7] Gray, P. (2011). The Decline of Play and the Rise of Psychopathology in Children and Adolescents. American Journal of Play, 3(4), 443-463.
[8] Fromberg, D. P., & Bergen, D. (Eds.). (2006). Play from birth to twelve: Contexts, perspectives, and meanings. Taylor & Francis. P. 27
[9] King, N. R. (1987). Elementary school play: Theory and research. School play: A source book, 143-165.