Play: An Essential Element of Student-Driven Learning

Billy New, pictured in the striped shirt, along grew up to improve the worldwide standard for medical care through devices he developed. He always believed that work was play.

When my best friend and partner, the late Dr. William New, was a child he had very few traditional toys. Instead, his parents gave him radios, flashlights, a hammer and saw and other “adult tools.” He helped his father construct the family home, built a radio when he was six and by the age of ten, he had earned his ham radio license. Because he had materials for creating and investigating Bill was always researching questions about how the world worked and tinkering with solutions to problems he observed. In today’s lexicon, he was a maker. At ten, alone in his tent on a Boy Scout campout, he noticed he could almost see the bones in his hand when he held a flashlight behind it. When he pinched his fingertips, he could see blood pulsing under his fingernails. This playful experience inspired a lasting fascination with blood and oxygenation. When he was an anesthesiologist at Stanford Bill realized that surgery patients were dying because of respiration problems. Bill recalled his campfire observations and investigated how he might design a small device that could noninvasively monitor blood flow and the level of oxygenation. Along with two partners, he launched Nellcor, the company that introduced a pulse oximeter that measured blood saturation with a fingertip device.

Play was the genesis of the pulse oximeter; a medical device changed the standard of care across the world. Throughout Bill’s life work was play. He found joy in asking questions, exploring new ideas, innovating to solve problems and working with peers to continuously iterate on design to improve function. Whether he was building a radio at age 6 or developing a device to detect neural deafness in newborns Bill’s process was very much like young children’s play in kindergarten. He never lost the curiosity and creativity that emerged out of his childhood play.

MIT”s Mitch Resnick explains the relationship of play to creativity in his book, Lifelong Kindergarten. Resnick’s creative learning spiral describes playful learning. That model inspired an early version of the AltSchool Learning Cycle developed to guide teachers in the design of learning environments and experiences that promote student-driven learning. Most definitions of student-driven learning use the terms voice and choice. In my essay on child-centered practices, I discuss the importance of giving students a choice in what to read, research, and create. Student choice must be coupled with voice. Play is one avenue for children to find their voice as learners, collaborators and as humans. Observing children at play is an invaluable opportunity for educators to understand each child’s approach to learning and teamwork.

Preparing Learning Environments for Play

Children have been tinkering and experimenting long before schools built beautiful maker labs. By giving careful attention to traffic patterns, noise levels and access to materials, any educator can create environments that will inspire playful learning.

AltSchool’s beta classroom was designed to be flexible so children, age five through ten, and teachers could move furniture to facilitate a variety of experiences. There were many comfortable places to sit, and the walls were painted with dry-erase paint so children could create murals, solve math problems and document their thinking for everyone to see. An area for the noisy play was at one end of the room while the book nook, math center, and writing tables were at the other. Cooking, communal dining, science experiments, and art took place at the center of the room. Time was allotted each day for free and structured explorations with a wide variety of materials for, exploring, creating and experimenting. We stored magnifying glasses, microscopes, flashlights, parquetry blocks, unifix cubes, and Cuisenaire rods in the math area. Open shelving housed hollow-blocks, unit blocks, Kapla blocks, Magna-Tiles, Legos, and Little Bits. Children used blocks on carpeted areas, so noise was absorbed. Midyear, Scratch expanded the available creative options to include animation. Students used the materials in free play and to respond to each week’s prompt such as, build something useful or build a model for the class pancake restaurant.

Watching the children immersed in play I was often reminded of Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow, a state of complete absorption in what one does, with a resulting loss in one’s sense of space and time. But there are often glitches to flow. Preparing an environment for playful learning is only the first step. Creative materials inspire children to play, but educators have an essential role in guiding learners to optimize play-based learning experiences.

Preparing Learners For Success In A Playful Classroom

As anyone who has ever observed children knows conflict and frustration are common when children play. When the Media Lab opened it’s first Computer Clubhouses, they developed a set of guiding principles and soon learned the most important one was Create an environment of respect and trust. Without those two elements, learners do not feel safe to try new materials, test ideas, collaborate, give feedback and authentically reflect. Creating a community of respect and trust begins on the first day of school. When educators frame expectations clearly and model desired behaviors students are empowered to recognize their feelings, regulate their behavior and to support their peers in doing so. Following are a few tips for building respectful, trusting student-driven communities.

  1. Keep expectations simple. A long and complicated set of rules is not only hard to remember it also turns the teacher into a police officer, always watching to see who is in compliance and who is not. Start with three to five broad expectations and during the first weeks of school access student voice by asking the students to develop examples of what each expectation looks like in the school community. Through discourse about expectations, the students are empowered to hold themselves and their friends accountable. Synergy, a progressive school in San Francisco, has a simple process, the agreement system, that for forty years has helped students build and enjoy their learning community. At the beginning of the year, students sign a pledge agreeing to make Synergy a respectful learning community, by following six simple guidelines. Responsive Classroom has a wealth of materials and excellent professional learning opportunities that help educators build safe, caring, active learning communities.
  2. Develop a vocabulary and process for talking with children about feelings and behaviors. Children misbehave because they lack experience in self-regulation and in understanding the perspective of others. It is important to have a regular process for listening to and talking with children that will help them recognize and take control of their emotions. How To Talk So Kids Can Learn by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish is easy to read and gives teachers a proven process for difficult conversations with students. The central premise is that effective dialogue with students begins when we acknowledge and accept their feelings, even when we cannot allow their behavior. Giving the child an opportunity to identify alternative behaviors and ways to make amends nurtures personal responsibility. Punishment fuels resentment and defensiveness.
  3. Be prepared for children who suffer from anxiety or have difficulty recognizing their feelings or the perspective of others. These children can be successful in an active, playful classroom but they may need more support. Social Thinking, developed by Marcia Garcia Winner along with a team of speech pathologists and occupational therapists was initially designed to support students with Asperger’s syndrome and Autism Spectrum Disorders, but their strategies are effective for neurotypical children. Reading Social Thinking materials and attending a conference can help educators understand anxiety and other obstacles to successful self-regulation and collaboration. Zones of Regulation is another tool for helping students identify their feelings.

Reflection and Assessment On The Process of Play

As they play children analyze situations, plan, take action, focus and adjust to reach their goals. In other words, they demonstrate agency. When educators observe, play they gain a deep understanding of each student’s executive function skills, especially the ability to plan, organize and think flexibly. Play is also a window into the child’s social development, revealing how they negotiate, through expressing their opinions and taking on the perspective of others. Through well-timed questions, suggestions and modeling educators can scaffold playful learning. By providing clear, student-friendly statements of learning targets teachers guide students to reflect on their process. Reflection and assessment of play are most potent when the primary focus is on the processes of play, not the product. Reflection, which should precede assessment, empowers learners to use what they’ve learned in new situations. Assessment helps the learner, educators and family set goals and track progress. Children taught me how technology could support play.

Early in our beta year, I discovered that children love telling their stories, explaining their processes and sharing their reflections. One of the students, a ten-year-old aspiring filmmaker, began using the camera on his iPad to document phases of his work on murals and with Kapla Blocks. He used his short videos and photos to discuss plans with his peers and to prepare for his project presentations. Through watching his evolving process of documentation, I improved the way I guided students to plan, reflect and assess their creation process. I gave students a list of simple questions about each stage of the project which they could answer in writing or by recording their thoughts in a video. These reflections were discussed in our weekly one to one conferences and informed each student’s final project presentation to the whole class.

Reflection Questions

  1. Did your plan list all of the supplies you needed and the steps for creating your decoration?
  2. What happened that was not part of your plan? How did you respond?
  3. Did you feel that your friends heard your ideas? Were your ideas used? Give an example.
  4. Did you listen to your partner’s ideas? Did you use your partner ’s ideas? Give an example.
  5. Who gave you feedback about your decoration? Give an example of how you used that feedback or explain why you did not use it.
  6. What do you like best about your decoration? What do you like least? What would you do differently next time?


After missteps with highly detailed, multi-point rubrics I discovered that simple, single point rubrics were the best way for young children to assess their work. We discussed rubrics at the beginning of a project and reflections and assessments were stored in portfolios and used to set goals and identify new opportunities for learning and creating.

  1. My plan included all the materials and steps I needed.
  2. I was flexible when I had to make changes in my plan.
  3. I spoke up and shared my ideas.
  4. I listened to and used my partner’s ideas.
  5. I used feedback to iterate on my ______.

Students demonstrate agency or drive their learning when they identify their strengths and growth areas, accept challenges, seek to learn what they do not know, set goals, measure progress, ask for help and use internal and external feedback to make changes. Play affords learners of all ages rich opportunities to practice all of these vital skills. Playful learning begins when educators prepare the environment and the learners for productive, immersive activities. A technology platform that enables learners and educators to document planning and reflection can enrich the child’s self-awareness and the educators’ understanding of each student. But the most critical step we can take to support playful learning is to educate parents and policymakers about the value of play, and how it is related to creative problem-solving. The world needs more people who, like Bill New, devise innovative solutions to stubborn problems by asking questions, making connections, taking risks and building productive teams. Supporting playful learning is the most important thing we can do to prepare children to innovate and collaborate.

Educator, entrepreneur, boundary crosser, community builder, advocate for learners of all ages.