The idea of play in education conjures up visions of nursery children creating models out of dough or splashing around at the water table. However, a project I ran recently involved play for secondary school students - more specifically, young people in a nurture group I run for those diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, or with social communication difficulties.
The lesson involved Lego, a classic "toy". The social skills programme I had established a few years earlier had been going well but was in need of a revamp, so I used the dissertation for my master's degree as an opportunity to try something different. With parental permission, a trial group of teenagers began to attend regular "Lego therapy" sessions, while a control group continued with the existing programme.
Lego therapy is a relatively new educational intervention developed by Daniel LeGoff in 2004. He discovered that children on the autism spectrum appeared to display improved social interaction when sharing a mutual interest in Lego.
Every session followed the same format. As the young people arrived, they were allocated a job as a builder, supplier or engineer. The engineer had control of the instructions - much to the dismay of the others - and verbally guided the building process. The supplier selected the correct pieces and passed them to the builder for construction.
This system did not always run smoothly and led to various disputes. As I had predicted, taking turns was a big problem and much of my time was spent discouraging hands from reaching across the table to take over the building because "you don't do it like that".
As frustrations began to peak, roles were switched and new skills were developed and practised. Each session ended with free play, which lifted the formality, rules and restrictions, and allowed improvements in social ability to continue in a more natural environment.
Slowly, interactions became more reciprocal and social cues started to be recognised and responded to. The young people became more willing to advise others rather than try to build alone, and they seemed to be working together instead of simply tolerating each other.
It is unclear whether this experience improved life outside the classroom - in moderating the often intimidating peer pressure of the playground, for example - but the growth of confidence and people skills within the group sessions indicated positive progress.
Sadly, opportunities to play in education are often restricted to the early years and then forgotten, replaced by more formal, academic study. In my experience of the secondary curriculum, I believe that the benefits of play are not acknowledged. With the education system increasingly recognising the need for emotional literacy, it is important to consider the skills that can be developed through play and to resist the urge to limit these experiences to the first few years of life.
Abigail Joachim is a higher-level teaching assistant in the English department at Westbourne Academy in Suffolk, England
Top 10 resources using toys and games
1. Toy stories
Challenge your students to make a timeline of photos of toys old and new in a sorting and discussion activity sure to prompt lively debate.
2. Monkey magic
Transform old socks into toy monkeys with this design and technology scheme of work.
3. Cognitive challenge
Students can investigate how toys impact child development and cognition using this insightful pack of resources.
4. Making motors
Get students to build a fleet of wooden toy cars with this detailed lesson plan. It will familiarise your younger students with all the tools of the workshop.
5. Building knowledge
Teach science through Lego bricks in this kinaesthetic activity that asks children to investigate the structure of different elements, mixtures and compounds.
6. Board talk
Computer games may be cooler, but students can't resist a good board game - particularly if they have created it themselves, as this activity asks them to do.
7. Game time
Once they've completed the board game above, students can move on to the more challenging task of designing their own computer game. This guide will help them.
8. Learning cycle
Teaching the menstrual cycle through an adaptation of the board game snakes and ladders may sound slightly bizarre, but this creative activity seems to work.
9. Bingo break
Teach your class the nuances of fractions, ratio and much more with this selection of bingo games that will engage everyone in learning.
10. Toy testimony
Use this history of toys to explore everything from manufacturing and societal changes to the sourcing and use of materials.