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How to teach through play (sponsored)

LEGO award winner Chris Wilde celebrates the importance of play in the classroom and allowing children to explore ideas

Encouraging pupils to make models is a valuable part of learning through play, says Chris Wilde

LEGO award winner Chris Wilde celebrates the importance of play in the classroom and allowing children to explore ideas

“Shreya, how would you change the code to make those LEDs flash from the centre out, rather than from the top to the bottom?”

Shreya looks at the Arduino code on the machine and breaks up the structure inside her forever loop, then plays with it to create a new sequence that solves the problem. Her learning has developed through play, based around a challenging question.

This is a typical scene in my classroom. So I felt like a bit of a fraud when I was awarded the LEGO Education Teacher Award for something that I would be doing anyway.

I do very little formal teaching in my classroom. In essence, my pedagogy is based on the power of play. 

Classes are student-centred and learning happens through doing. Our lessons are creative, with a tangible end project. We use technology as a tool – both hardware and software – and develop problem-solving skills by taking on difficult challenges, and taking our time.

'I'm less a teacher, more a facilitator'

We learn from each other. So, I’m less a teacher, more a facilitator.

While this approach may not be for everyone, it is the only way I would want to teach.  

We enable students to develop specific computing skills but also offer rich cross-curricular links. Our robotics units of work develop mathematical and problem-solving skills and we build literacy into our adventure games.

Our students also have fun. They enjoy what they do and they are able to make mistakes in order to learn. And they are comfortable with making those mistakes; resilience training is in-built into this pedagogy. 

This style of teaching and learning helps students to thrive. Some initially struggle with the freedom, expecting to be told the exact way to produce their work. However, the whole point is to have a go and learn from mistakes. Our pupils soon develop collaborative skills and become less afraid of errors. This allows them to play with their ideas more freely and develop skills independently. They also become supportive of each other, sharing their knowledge and understanding.

A great example of our approach is a project in which we used LEGO. I developed a series of lessons introducing my Year 4 pupils to an array of mechanisms using LEGO WeDo 2.0, with an overarching question of “Can you create a theme park out of LEGO?” 

I tasked them with building a series of working models – using motors, gear trains, crown gears and cams – before undertaking a series of investigations about what was happening when the mechanisms were powered. 

Next, they deconstructed a variety of fairground attractions, building on their learning to consider how mechanisms can be put together to create a final product. Having the LEGO kits means they can play and work things out in a way that isn’t possible through thought alone.

Pupils' pride in their designs

Pupils then entered the design cycle: design, build and iterate a model with the final aim of creating a functioning scale model of a fairground ride using the kits. Working in groups, they developed collaborative learning and problem-solving skills.

At the end, they had a huge sense of pride and achievement, some of them not even realising the learning that had taken place. 

It was this project that won me the award from LEGO and that led to an invite to attend LEGO’s symposium at Tufts University in the USA to explore creative new ways of using play to develop learning. 

Rob Torok’s "Advanced Play with EV3" session gave great insights into a variety of ways to develop robotics understanding, but the key thing that I took away was how he used the story of The Little Red Hen to set up the learning journey. 

We started by talking through the story and then considering the issues faced by the little red hen and how we could program a robot to help solve those problems. Because we already knew the story, Torok could spend less time explaining what he wanted us to do. I recognised that this approach could give pupils a head-start in problem-solving, and so we’re currently working on an Alice's Adventures in Wonderland unit for our Year 6 pupils, exploring mazes and colour-recognition tasks.

At the symposium, I also learned about "Dr E’s challenges": a set of monthly robotics challenges for young people set by the mysterious "Dr E".

Dr E sets a challenge and pupils create a robot to solve the problem, posting a video demonstrating their work. We have started using these challenges with our classes for home learning, structuring a series of activities that allow pupils to show their solutions to a worldwide audience. This shift has really inspired them and given the work a purpose; because they’re entering a competition, they’re taking it very seriously.

In our classrooms, we have quotes on the walls from people who have defined the technological revolution, and we constantly refer to them during our sessions. They show our young people that the best way to influence their world is to become producers of technology, rather than just consumers. 

By learning through play, our pupils are developing the resilience to make mistakes and develop understanding by exploring their imaginations.

Chris Wilde is head of digital technology and computing at Royal Grammar School, Newcastle