4 ways to encourage play in education

Play is essential for learning—but all too often, educators don’t include it in classrooms

Key points:

As a longtime educator, I’ve witnessed firsthand the incredible benefits that play can have in a K–8 classroom. Unstructured play is how students learn to interact with the world around them. It’s what allows them to master social skills and shapes their communication, cooperation, and responsible decision-making abilities.

A quick Google search on the topic will confirm that play is a primary vehicle for learning, so naturally, teachers should make a point to include plenty of it in their weekly lesson plans. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. It’s all too easy for modern education to become locked into rigid policies and learning models. 

Thankfully, injecting play into lessons can be a simple process if educators are willing to get creative. Here are just a few ideas that have helped me incorporate fun and curiosity into my students’ lessons:

  • Gamification: Gamification is when educators use game mechanics in non-gaming situations to improve student engagement and encourage greater participation. For example, when teaching students their multiplication figures, an educator could have them play dice games that require multiplying instead of adding the numbers to determine how far to move. Another strategy is to develop “levels” of difficulty that mimic the mechanics of modern video games. Sometimes these simple strategies are all that’s needed to get students more invested in the content. 
  • Curiosity hour: Before engaging in an investigation, set up several stations where students can experiment, explore, and engage in open-ended play. Allow them to “mess about” with the materials in an unstructured way and write down any stray thoughts or questions that might come to mind. This helps them to gain a hands-on understanding of how the materials work while encouraging them to explore and follow their curiosity.
  • Outdoor discoveries: Never underestimate the power of the great outdoors!Take students on a walk outside in nature–but equip them with clipboards and paper so they can collect the things their walk inspires them to wonder about. Then, let them do research to satisfy their curiosity. You could even send students on an outdoor scavenger hunt and encourage them to find things that connect with the academic content you’re learning.
  • Artificial intelligence: Educators should not overlook the growing presence of artificial intelligence in schools.Our students will likely graduate into a world where AI tools like ChatGPT are commonplace. As such, educators should incorporate AI into lessons as a means of fostering play while also teaching students about emerging technology. Consider having an AI system like ChatGPT generate a response to something you’d like your students to do–and then challenge them to make it BETTER. This closely mimics an essential skill for students to develop and prepares them for future challenges in an AI-driven world.

When we incorporate play into K-8 education, we teach students to invest in themselves and enjoy the learning process. Play enriches their experience, supporting their cognitive, social, and emotional development. So, let’s embrace positive play in education and empower students by laying a strong foundation for their lifelong success.

eSchool Media Contributors