Playing and Learning- Is There A Difference?


If I look around my Grade 1 classroom, the students show me everyday how they want to learn, they give me important feedback about what they find engaging and what they don’t, what motivates them to find out more and persevere and what doesn’t- it’s my job to listen to the feedback they are giving me and facilitate their learning accordingly. My role is also to be mindful of the skills  that my students may need in the future and design tasks and learning with this in mind. What my students show me everyday is the value of play and being playful in the process of their learning.

Play is about exploring the possible. In times of rapid change, exploring the possible becomes an essential skill. We don’t have maps for the territory of tomorrow. As a result, all citizens must become explorers of this emerging world. The best way to prepare for the emergence of the future is to learn how to be comfortable with uncertainty. To be comfortable with uncertainty, one must remain fluid, receptive and creative — in a word: playful. 

Aran Levassur

Creativity along with critical thinking and the ability to problem solve are the top 3 skills needed in the 2020 workforce. When I look at play that happens in the classroom, whether it’s game playing ,play exploration, digital or analogue,  I think those 3 vital skills are happening . The ability for a student to develop their thinking and skills in a creative , playful, risk taking and relatively open choice environment has always been important to me both as a student and educator.

                                        flickr photo shared by mrsdkrebs under a Creative Commons ( BY ) license

I was at an elementary school in the 60’s when active learning, open classrooms, team teaching and project-based learning were new, exciting and encouraged.  I remember loving school, loving the wide perimeters I was given to learn and pursuing things that really interested me. I remember a lot of play and exploration- authentic, student-centred active learning.  Even back then educationalists such as Jerome Bruner were calling for a curriculum that stressed critical thinking, collaboration and questioning of traditional thoughts and values. It was about choice in my learning and having the space to think for myself and develop my understanding through doing, redoing, failing ,persevering and improving my skills to reach the next level in my learning. All motivational elements in learning that Yu-kai Chou talks about in his TEDX talk Gamification to Improve the World
Then I went to secondary school and I felt like I started to fail. There was no exploration or play around learning or guidance about how to learn, just a lot of content to get through with little or no understanding of application or why it was important. No questions asked, no critical thinking developed, no collaborative learning, no place for safe failure, it was just something I saw I had to get through.

flickr photo Matt Peoples Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND )license

What I see now are approaches developing in learning, such as Quest To Learn  to lessen the gap between life skills and interests. I have loved reading about all those innovative teachers and designers who have recognised that game-based learning and gamification can incorporate and develop so many important skills in a students’ learning. They are harnessing the power of play  and our love of games. According to Karl M.Kapp, Professor of Instructional Technology at Bloomsburg University, great digital games designers design a successful game by centering on the learning objective and

understanding a lot about how people learn and how people play

                                         flickr photoshared by EricHaines under a Creative Commons (BY)license

I’m an educator that uses games a lot both inside and outside the classroom. I use games to accomplish certain goals and to engage the learner.This might be to build community, or to build specific learning strategies or skills in areas like maths  and language, to target specific content, to problem solve, to explore their cognitive and creative thinking. It might be to help students to deal with mistakes and failures and to recognise successes. We also play games to build fun and play into our day.

I’m also a teacher that may not be using games to their potential so I am especially keen to read more about it and to reflect on game-based learning and gamification . At the beginning of the post I wrote about how my students show me how they want to learn. What they  talk about most when it comes to digital gaming is Minecraft. Our ICT facilitator Tanya Irene, has been running an after school Minecraft club for several years now. My classroom is not far away and every Monday afternoon, I hear a buzz coming from the Media Lab where the club is run. Last year I went in a few times to observe what was going on. This is what I saw:

  • Flow
  • creativity
  • motivation
  • scaffolding and differentiation
  • accomplishment
  • curiosity
  • peer-learning
  • perseverance
  • cognitive flexibility
  • critical thinking
  • negotiation
  • decision making
  • students being challenged and recognising their learning and achievements

Sometimes Tanya would stop the group to encourage group problem solving, encourage peer feedback and remind the group of their responsibilities as collaborative learners and digital citizens. I was a Minecraft newbie and one of the students took me under her wing to explain how I could build my world and join others.  I was exploring through playing, the sheer buzz and collaboration and problem solving that was going on in the room had already convinced me that this is something that we could plan to introduce in our Grade. I was mindful that we should we start with the end in mind. Game-based learning is more than just picking the right game for your classroom. It’s about designing a meaningful learning experience for your students.  I started to work with one of the Grade 1 Teacher Assistants, a keen gamer and Minecraft expert and we decided we could use Minecraft to design a collaborative project during our unit on Structures. The main focus or goal for this project would be to build collaborative skills and roles in creating a building project. Inquiry into structures and different materials would be the subsidiary goal. We started writing learning objectives and guidelines for the project and that was as far as we got.

Watching Jane McGonigal’s, Gaming Can make a Better World, and observing my own kids at home conquering civilisations and creating their own worlds has helped me understand the potential of game-based learning and rekindled my own interest to try this in the classroom.

                                    flickr photoshared byMaggiCraftunderaCreativeCommons (BY-NC-SA)license

So many of these skills that I observed at the Minecraft Club are included on the list of 10 skills you need to thrive in the fourth industrial revolution. No wonder the principles of gamification are also being used in training and leadership in work scenarios. When I asked my students what they liked about games and game-based learning such as Minecraft they said:

I like games because I’m playing with friends

There are lots of different games and I like learning how to play new games- like                        learning new things

You never know what’s going to happen in games, you might lose, but then you play again and get better

You know what to do to get better

You can learn new stuff in games

I like building and making my own games

In Minecraft, if you die ,it’s not the end, you can spawn another animal or person                                                                                                 and then learn how to survive better

Winning’s fun

Last year, as our summative assessment during our inquiry on Responsibility and the Environment we asked the students to design their own board game to show their understanding of how we can help the environment. I was amazed at the creativity, diversity, and understanding of how a game works . Each group gave constructive feedback as we tried to play each other’s games and the students were keen to get it just right, to improve on what didn’t work so that their game would become a favourite and be played in the classroom. Then I read this article Why Kids Should Make the Video Games They Love To Play  which of course led me to read this Making Games: The Ultimate Project-Based Learning . I’m not sure I’m ready to do this with my Grade 1’s just yet, anyone tried?

Starting my exploration on gamification,  game-based learning and their connection to the importance of play, I’m piecing together my learning and beginning to think game-based learning might be an option for my final Course 5 project. There are so many take aways from my learning so far around this approach. Some of the most powerful are: it can offer the students several routes towards learning success , it can build resilience around failure, and it helps and encourages students to see challenges as a positive part of their learning.  This is not to say that these skills cannot be achieved in any other way, but I’m interested and excited to explore this further.


                                         flickr photo shared by kjarrett under a Creative Commons ( BY ) license

In  If all of Work were Gamified there’s also a cautionary reminder that we like games because it’s our choice to participate and engage in them. If we were to gamify all of the students’ learning and make it mandatory, would it still feel like a game of choices?

Thank you to Angela Langlands It’s Time To Mine and Amanda McCloskey A Minecraft Inquiry and all those other Coetailers who have shared their Final Project around game-based learning-inspiring.

Also to Robert Appino for this link




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