The Best Way to Engage Students Today? Introduce Play-Based Learning into Your School

    • Play based learning is important because, children learn best when they understand content contextually and apply it to solve relevant problems. Learning through play provides that context.
    • Problem solving, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration are all lifelong skills that are developed through play based learning.
    • Set learning goals, standards, and meaningful assessments for play based learning. This will ensure your desired impact.

A conversation with Ross Flatt, manager of programs for the Institute of Play and former assistant principal at Quest to Learn School.

Numerous experts and a growing number of educators talk about how successful play can be in a learning environment. But how do schools implement play-based programs while still adhering to strict curriculum standards? The Genius of Play sat down with Ross Flatt, Manager of Programs for the Institute of Play and former assistant principal at Quest to Learn School, to find out how play can enhance learning. Here’s what he had to say.

What is the reality of play in schools and how is that affecting students and learning?

Play is highly encouraged in the earliest years – mainly in preschool and kindergarten. However, as students get older, they are often moved into a more industrialized education setting where they are expected to learn through practice, recitation, and the memorization of content. This shift demands that students sit down, listen, take notes, and remember things – often without providing relevant context to the subject matter. Human beings aren’t programmed to learn in this manner. We learn best when we are able to understand content contextually and apply it to solve relevant problems. This creates engaged learners. Play and game-based learning can provide that context.

As a teacher and administrator, how have you embraced a play-based approach to learning?

Students learn best when they are engaged, active, and immersed in deep learning experiences. As a high school history teacher, I was fortunate enough to have the flexibility to allow my students to pretend to be Spartan warriors, investigate the murder of Julius Caesar in a Roman Detective agency, explore the judicial system by putting the Big Bad Wolf on Trial, and publish magazines in the style of the 1920s. Not only did these immersive projects and experiences make my classroom a more exciting place to be, but my students were able to grapple with complex historical content in meaningful ways. More importantly, students were able to demonstrate on a regular basis problem solving, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration – skills far more important for students to master than specific pieces of content.

At Quest to Learn, a school founded in partnership by the Institute of Play and the NYC Department of Education, teachers work with game and learning designers from the Institute of Play to develop narrative-based learning experiences, design challenges, and games for students to push their learning or assess their understanding. These experiences provide students with a “need to know” – an exciting reason to want to learn their subject matter.

As an assistant principal at Quest to Learn in 2014, I worked with teachers to provide them with professional development centered on the Institute of Play’s principles of game-based learning. In observing their lessons, my biggest focus was on the “Why?” Why should students be learning what they’re learning? Does a lesson or curriculum allow students to interact with the subject in a meaningful way? Do students engage in real-world roles or collaborate with each other in a challenging environment? These questions are all based on the fundamentals of play and game-based education.

At Quest to Learn, what has been the biggest impact of play on students? Did it also impact the overall school environment?

Early evidence of game-like learning’s impact at Quest to Learn is promising. Two independent studies have been conducted at Quest 2 Learn, which serves a diverse demographic of students. One study, a “Formative Evaluation of Students at Q2L,” by Shute and colleagues (2009) evaluated student development of several non-cognitive skills – systems thinking, time management, and teamwork – over a 20-month time period. They found that students significantly improved their systems thinking skills over the duration of the study, and improved on time management and teamwork skills as well.

Institute of Play's work at Quest to Learn eventually evolved into a program called TeacherQuest, a professional development model that brings the principles of play and game-based learning into schools all over the country. Institute of Play’s TeacherQuest program has shown a great impact on educator practice. 97% of TQ participants report increased student engagement in their classrooms and 92% of TQ participants report that the program has increased their effectiveness as an educator. 62% of teachers reported that TQ programming supported them in the integration and assessment of non-cognitive skills such as student collaboration, engagement, and perseverance.

Can play-based learning be successfully implemented in a public-school setting? What about private and charter schools?

Absolutely! Play and game-based learning has the potential to be successful in any school setting. The first step would be to start with standards (Common Core, State Standards, etc.) and clear learning goals. Then, the school must consider context. Context is what creates the “need to know” for students, motivating them and providing real world connections. Additionally, teachers and students alike must be supported in this process and allowed to take risks.

How can administrators promote more play in the classroom and at the same time make sure their school meets all curriculum requirements?

Good administrators should encourage teachers to bring new and creative ideas into their classroom – and support a teacher’s work around these ideas. Regular observations with low-stakes but constructive feedback are also vital to this process. Most importantly, all play- or game-based learning experiences should be aligned with clear learning goals, standards, and meaningful formative and summative assessments. If they are not thoughtfully planned or meaningfully assessed, they will not have the desired impact.

What advice would you give to administrators who would like to bring more play to their schools but are not sure how to do that?

Play and game-based learning should be used strategically and thoughtfully. Too often, a school will want to make a dramatic shift in pedagogy as a way to increase student engagement or raise test scores. The most successful administrators start small. For instance, implement a play- and game-based learning program for a small group of teachers at the school – perhaps one department or with department leads. These teachers will then serve as a model for the other teachers within the school.

The Institute of Play is a non-profit organization made up of designers, strategists, and learning practitioners, who seek to transform education through play by using game-like learning experiences. As the Institute’s manager of programs, Ross Flatt leads the development, implementation and evaluation of highly engaging programs for youth and adults. He has more than 10 years of experience working in teaching and administration.

Visit the Institute of Play’s website for more information on play and game-based learning.

    • Play based learning is important because, children learn best when they understand content contextually and apply it to solve relevant problems. Learning through play provides that context.
    • Problem solving, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration are all lifelong skills that are developed through play based learning.
    • Set learning goals, standards, and meaningful assessments for play based learning. This will ensure your desired impact.

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