How to bring play-based learning into the classroom

Shahneila Saeed

Shahneila Saeed is the programme director of the Digital Schoolhouse Project, an initiative run by the games industry trade body Ukie to excite Primary school children about computing and to give secondary teachers access to free, creative resources to help deliver the new Computing curriculum. Shahneila was previously head of Computing at a London school for 12 years. She has been heavily involved in the teaching, computer science and edtech industries since 1998.

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Anyone who has worked with Early Years Foundation Stage will understand the importance of learning through play. Play-based learning is encouraged in primary schools and included on the curriculum, and parents use play as a means of teaching children when they are young. However are we missing a trick by completely eliminating play from lessons for older pupils? There will certainly be times when a traditional teaching approach is called for (when preparing for exams for example), but would our students show greater engagement, a deeper understanding of concepts, creativity and resilience if we also tried to embed new pedagogical techniques with them?

Creativity is a key part of the new Computing curriculum and along with computational thinking it underpins the framework of the subject. So how do we bring that creativity into today’s classroom? "The children seized the challenge, exchanged ideas and actually did the demo themselves." In the past ICT was mostly taught using traditional teaching methods: the teacher would demonstrate and the pupils would complete prescribed activities with support from the teacher. Pupils often had little say in the direction of activities and they found it difficult to relate what they had learned in class to their computing experiences outside of school, which quite often were more advanced than what they were doing in the classroom – the two just didn’t connect.

I spent over 15 years working as an ICT teacher and delivering engaging lessons was important to me. I was always looking to incorporate new resources and different ideas into lessons; however, one of my first experiences of play-based learning came about through necessity rather than by design! I had just returned to teaching from maternity leave and had forgotten a key skill that I was scheduled to teach in an upcoming lesson. It wasn’t until I was on my way to the classroom that I suddenly realised I had completely forgotten to teach myself how to complete it. I had no demonstration prepared and there was no time to change the lesson plan – what was I going to do? Unsure how to teach pupils something I didn’t know how to do myself, I decided to ask my pupils to figure out the problem for themselves. The children seized the challenge, exchanged ideas and by the end of the lesson they actually did the demo themselves. The looser lesson format meant that they were incredibly excited and engaged – there was a real buzz in the classroom. By the end of the class I had discovered three different ways to do the skill I had originally forgotten!

I decided to try this method with other classes, including pupils of varying abilities. What was really exciting was that for the first time I saw lower-ability students sharing ideas with their higher ability peers. Not everybody was able to complete the challenge, but everybody learnt something new which they could then share which created a huge boost in self-esteem and increased pupil engagement in the lesson. The strategy also worked with the more challenging classes. Under the more traditional method, pupils that are easily distracted, and dare I say ‘bored’, would have to sit through a demonstration and explanation lasting at least five minutes. With interruptions and various behaviour management strategies, this five minute slot could sometimes stretch to 15 minutes. By removing the demonstration and immersing pupils in the challenge immediately, classroom behaviour made an immediate and sustained improvement. For me it was a revelation, I had never seen any other strategy work so well and have such an impact.

Play-based learning isn’t an easy concept for everyone to embrace – some of my colleagues would occasionally remark how I'd selected a 'gimmick' as a resource and that it would not result in any deep understanding. Yet it was this resource itself that would engage pupils. It was the ‘hook’ that got them asking questions, wanting to know more. It's these questions that we can then use to forge even deeper learning opportunities.

It goes without saying, of course, that removing demonstrations will not always be feasible, for example, in science and technology practical lessons or other classes where there could be safety issues.

One trait of traditional teaching methods can be the tendency to look for all students to arrive at a single solution in order for their work to be correct. By giving students a looser, more creative framework for activities we allow far more scope to explore problems and work through various different solutions.

So how do we foster creativity among pupils? Creativity needs the right conditions, such as:

  • A playful state of mind.
  • Situations/activities that promote this.
  • Time and space to let your mind wander and think.
  • An atmosphere that is free from too much stress.
  • Ability to bounce ideas off each other.

It may not be possible to ensure these conditions in all our lessons all of the time. However, it is worth reviewing our lesson structures to see if there is scope for us to begin to develop at least some of these conditions some of the time.

In addition to creativity, computational thinking also underpins the new Computing curriculum. I’ve spoken to many teachers who wonder how it’s possible to build computational thinking into their lessons and become quite anxious by it. However, computational thinking is not difficult. In fact, we’ve all been using it since we were very young. The only issue is that we are unaware of the skills that we use. If we combine computational thinking with a little creativity then we can teach some truly inspirational lessons. So when it comes to teaching computational thinking in this manner there are a few additional things that are worth keeping in mind:

  • Keep it simple - strip out the technical terms – stick to the concepts. Doing this helps you realise that you can deliver the concept in different ways and ‘hang’ the terminology onto it later.
  • Provide open-ended and real world-based problems and help students to arrive at their own solutions.
  • Try teaching computing ‘unplugged’. Teaching computing unplugged can help to emphasise and deepen the understanding of key concepts as well as develop computational thinking skills. They also add a sense of fun and play to the lesson.

If fun, innovative resources can provide the hook to creating curious, engaged pupils, why not take this thought process a step further and look for the resource first… is it fun? When we select resources they are to help us teach a particular aspect of the curriculum. In these cases, our primary selection criteria for a resource is whether it can effectively help us deliver a particular concept or skill. ‘Fun’ often doesn’t come into the equation. But what if we flipped this on its head? What if sometimes we looked around and found a resource and selected it based simply on the fact that it’s ‘fun’ and will engage our pupils? If we select and test the resource first, we can then work out where it fits into the curriculum and how it can be adapted later. Doing things this way can help to engage and inspire pupils as well as create more of those ‘lightbulb moments’.

"What if sometimes we looked around and found a resource and selected it based simply on the fact that it’s fun?"

When looking at creative resources for lessons, try not to be limited by traditional notions of what can or cannot be done inside a classroom. For example, challenge pupils to make their own jewellery, toys or smartphone cases with a 3Doodler; or teach them how to deliver and develop their own magic tricks, choreograph dance routines, or even solve a murder mystery - all of these can help teach computational thinking concepts.

Games such as Minecraft have already been shown to add real educational value, however non-educational entertainment games also have real potential to deliver learning benefits. Role-playing games (RPGs), puzzle and strategy games often require the user to solve problems, think logically and often algorithmically. These are all key aspects of computational thinking.

Inviting pupils to play a game provides that all important ‘hook’. It's then just a simple matter of getting them to examine their gameplay and apply decomposition to break it down into its key parts. They can take what they have learnt from this to use and develop their own game, or use what they have learnt within other contexts, to solve other problems.

With the advent of the new Computing curriculum, we have a wonderful opportunity to do something completely different for the first time. This is the first time that we as teachers are being actively encouraged to experiment, to try new techniques and resources. It's a wonderful opportunity and it would be a great shame to teach this amazing new curriculum using the same old methods.

Do you bring play into the classroom? Share your experiences below!

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