Why play should be part of every lesson

7th June 2013 at 01:00
Students can use imagination, drama and make-believe in all subjects to explore concepts and reinforce their learning

Most teachers recognise that, far from being the study break some students believe it to be, play is actually a key tool in the learning process, enabling children to explore new things, to make and learn from mistakes, and to expand their understanding of topics being taught.

However, while recognising the benefits of play, teachers can often be deaf to using it in the classroom amid the clamour of methodologies and practices at their disposal. It can also be difficult to know when it should be used. The good news is that play is a more flexible tool than some teachers may think.

A great way of using play is through drama activities, and these can be included in any topic and subject. Two really useful games are freeze- frame and character role-play. In each case, students play with ideas and information through the physical tools that drama provides.

Freeze-frame works as follows: each student or group of students has to create a dramatic tableau depicting an action that has been stopped midway through. This is like pressing the pause button when watching a DVD. You can model this for students by freezing yourself midway through an action such as a golf swing or a tennis shot.

To put this in to a lesson, ask the students to form groups of three to five. Explain that you want them to create a freeze-frame demonstrating one aspect of their learning or based around a key idea from that day's lesson. You could also give a range of ideas that will be included in later lessons and use the freeze-frame as an introduction. When this is done, ask half the class to assess the other half's freeze-frames and work out what they are portraying. Encourage discussion, then get the two sides to swap roles.

Character role-play

Freeze-frames assist students in understanding and questioning the themes of the lesson. Character role-play prompts a similar level of engagement and is most suited to lessons where students have to explore the thoughts, actions or beliefs of one or more individuals.

Using character role-play in lessons requires the teacher to produce a set of cards giving information about one or more characters relevant to the topic being taught. These can be specific individuals, such as Joan of Arc, or representative of a group, such as a 19th-century Russian peasant.

You can use the cards in a number of ways. First, you can split the class into groups and give one student in each group a card. That student then has to act the role spelled out on the card while the others ask questions to guess who is being impersonated. You could run this on a larger scale by giving every student in the class a card and challenging each one to guess the characters being impersonated around them.

The second method is a guessing game between pairs. Each student has a card and each gets one question at a time to try to guess the identity of the character their partner is acting out. Whoever guesses correctly first, wins.

Of course, the role does not have to be character-based but can be one that encourages certain ways of acting - for example, a student could play the role of interviewer, researcher or debater.

In taking on the role of interviewer, students will think, act and interact in specific ways they believe befit an interviewer. This is beneficial because it encourages the student to think in a different way, learning and making progress as they go.

The same applies when you ask a student to act the role of a researcher. If you gear the activity in a way that sufficiently mimics the real-life research process of scientists, the students are likely to take on the role in a more engaged way, conducting research in a manner that is suited to the role, taking into account the scientific world view and the motives that underpin scientific research.

Putting the student in the role of debater works similarly: when the student is asked to argue a statement, they will inhabit the role and engage and argue more than they would have done in a straight discussion.

Playing with ideas

Of course, play does not have to be only about drama. It can be looked at more laterally and applied to the study of ideas. Playing with ideas can be a valuable way of encouraging students to think more deeply about those ideas and to engage with them in a more discursive way. Again, this can be incorporated in any lesson.

A good way to do this is to call on the age-old question that has served critical and creative thinkers since the dawn of civilisation: "What if .?" What if photosynthesis stopped working? What if only two players on a football team were allowed to shoot for goal? What if some people were resistant to the effects of alcohol?

"What if?" questions present students with a hypothetical situation; they must use their existing knowledge and understanding to develop some kind of answer. Both question and answer play with the notion of what is known and accepted to be the case. In so doing, they encourage students to think creatively.

A second technique you can use to help students play with ideas concerns the notion of context. Once students are familiar with a new idea - once they have met it, manipulated it and begun to understand it - challenge them to explore the effect that a change of context might have. For example, how is the notion of austerity, as used today, different from the same concept as it was used in the 1950s?

Questions such as this ask students to take what they have learned and examine how it connects to other ideas, as well as how it functions in different settings. The whole process is indicative of play.

It is inevitable that the use of play like this is sometimes forgotten in the hustle and bustle of the classroom. However, it is important that teachers remind themselves of how effective play can be in the teaching and learning process. This article has dealt with just a few ways of using play in the classroom: with a little creativity, teachers can unlock many more.

Mike Gershon is a teacher, trainer and writer. He has written seven books on pedagogy, all of which are available from Amazon.

In short

  • Play is underused in the classroom, despite teachers realising how valuable it can be for learning.
  • Play can enable students to explore new things, to make and learn from mistakes, and to expand their understanding.
  • Ways of incorporating play into lessons include freeze-frame games and character role-play. Both are helpful for making students think differently about the topic at hand.
  • Ideas can also be played with: hypothetical "what if?" questions encourage children to consider the knowledge they already have in a different light. Changing the context of information can push things further, forcing students to assess the connections between ideas.


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