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How Playful Learning Can Help You Rebuild Student Engagement

Almost three decades in the classroom taught me Learning Through Play is the best way to teach

By Alicia Miller, a retired educator and current LEGO Education partner.

Nearly 30 years ago, I walked into the classroom as a new teacher, ready to excite students through learning. Instead of seeing raised hands and eager faces, I was met with bored stares and uncomfortable silence. It was while teaching science, I realized that students were most interested when they were learning hands-on. The students’ silence turned into chatter, questioning, and then into confidence. Seeing this stark difference in engagement was all it took for me to start incorporating hands-on, purposeful play into my teaching of every subject.

In the last few years, however, I’ve noticed the joy in learning dwindling for both teachers and their students. The pandemic promised to rethink learning, but the focus on improving students’ test scores has many reverting to textbooks and more traditional learning techniques. Unfortunately, student progress is still falling short.

The power of hands-on learning is that you can teach to standards while engaging students and fostering their love of learning. When play is purposeful, it is an incredible teaching tool that encourages students to be creative thinkers, collaborate, and value divergent thinking. It levels the playing field and creates a safe learning environment where students can have the freedom to try and try again while taking ownership and pride in their work. Year after year, I saw all learners feel a sense of belonging in the group and every student had the chance to shine. According to a recent survey, 98% of K-8 students agree that playing in the classroom helps them learn – and it’s easy to see why!

Hands-on learning also inspired my students to take lessons further than I was planning; they would collaborate and teach one another. As a teacher, it was always so rewarding to see students taking an active role in their learning and watch students who had previously been shy or struggling to emerge as experts among their classmates. For one math lesson, I prompted students to demonstrate “12 divided by 4″ with physical materials around the classroom. What I saw was students excitedly creating the solution that made sense to them and piggybacking off each other’s ideas. They completely blew me away with their creativity and teamwork.

Bringing purposeful play to your classroom shouldn’t be intimidating. Here are tips to get started:

  • Infuse play into existing lessons. I kept a bin filled with LEGO® bricks in the classroom and would instruct my students to tackle an impromptu task, related to what we were learning, using those bricks. You can have students explore using materials on hand to get used to new learning routines in the classroom.
  • Give students a structured task that ties to the lesson for them to get hands-on and think critically, such as “create a building that the character of the book lives in and explain what you did.” Students can then demonstrate their understanding of the character or overarching lesson theme.
  • Use play-based learning resources, so you aren’t starting from scratch. There are so many options out there that have done the work for you and make it easy to jump in, like LEGO Education’s free World Play Day Activity Kit.

If you want to see your students discover the joy in learning, try giving them (and you!) permission to play in the classroom.