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Mindset & Motivation, Podcast Articles, Truth for Teachers Collective   |   Sep 5, 2021

5 ways to prevent burnout by bringing more playfulness to your classroom (even if you teach middle or high school!)

By Laura Gellin

ELA Teacher

5 ways to prevent burnout by bringing more playfulness to your classroom (even if you teach middle or high school!)

By Laura Gellin

After taking detail-oriented reading quizzes on the first eight books of The Odyssey, my ninth-graders were about ready for a surprise.

I walked into class that day carrying a huge bin of legos and eight cans of playdoh.  I placed the bin in the center of the room and announced that today they would be taking a group quiz.  Students would work together to create the characters, scenes, and important objects from last night’s reading to tell me the story of Book 9 of The Odyssey.

“Are you serious?”

“This is awesome!”

“How much time do we have to build everything?”

Their energy boosted and their focus sharpened as they quickly got to work. They discussed, designed, negotiated, delegated, constructed, collaborated, evaluated, problem-solved, and eventually told a detailed account of Odysseus’s travels to the three islands in Book 9.

Just like their more traditional reading quizzes, this was closed book and required a command over the details, but this activity was way more challenging and took way more skill.  So why did my students absolutely love doing it?

To them, it wasn’t work; it was play.


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Why High School Students Need Play

Play — for high school-aged students — tends to get a bad rep. Not the playing of an instrument or the playing of a sport, both of which are arguably too structured and adult-oriented to be considered true play.

No, I’m talking about the kind of self-directed play that seems separate from any serious pursuit and separate from a student’s ordinary experience. The kind of play where the adults stay out of it, and the players are the ones who own the process. The kind of play where kids experience joy and pleasure while being completely absorbed in what they’re doing.

This kind of play tends to be labeled as a time-waster by many adults and teens alike. Shouldn’t students be doing something more productive with their time: studying for that test, practicing their sport, getting a job, or cleaning their room?

In our meritocratic culture and our college-prep schools, who has time for play?

Skeptical adults and teens are not alone. Most scientists stop researching the value of play once children hit the ripe, old age of six. These studies overwhelmingly support play as essential and beneficial to a child’s behavioral, social, emotional, linguistic, and cognitive development. Though not developing at the same rate as a toddler, high school students are still developing in these areas. So as children grow up and continue to develop in these areas, do the benefits of play decline, or is that the opportunities for play decline?

Psychology researcher Peter Gray argues the latter. He contends that the decline in opportunities for play contributes to the rise in anxiety and depression in young people. After all, anxiety and depression strongly correlate with people’s sense of control — or lack of control — over their lives.  As opportunities for self-directed play decrease, a child’s sense of control over their own life decreases too.

Play theorist Brian Sutton-Smith and medical doctor Stuart Brown individually researched play and ended with the same conclusion: the opposite of play is not work — it’s depression.

As schools and teachers all over the world are becoming more sensitive, more aware, and more proactive in the mental wellness of their students, play should be a part of these concerted efforts.

Now, I’m not advocating that you let your high school students play all day everyday, or that you throw out every assessment or source of stress, but how might your students’ experience of learning change if you started to incorporate some aspects of play? What might happen to you and your teaching if you decided to add some playfulness?

Five Benefits of Play You Will See in Your Classroom

While the benefits of playful learning are many — from creating new neural pathways to practicing transferable skills, here are the top five benefits of incorporating aspects of play into your students’ learning experiences.

Play increases active engagement. 

With playful learning, students become intensely absorbed in the task when designed at the right level of challenge and interest. Students enter the “flow state,” in which their energized focus and full involvement transforms their experience of time. When “time flies,” this not only looks like good learning and feels like good learning, but active and engaged involvement actually enhances memory encoding, retrieval processes, and executive control networks in the brain. This means that their brains benefit from this playful learning in the present and in the future.

Play gives students agency.  

Playful learning gives students the opportunity to self-direct and become more curious. They consider different perspectives and options before negotiating and making decisions. With increased control and decision-making power, students become more independent and intrinsically motivated as they strive to define their own standards for excellence and take more ownership of their learning.

Play scaffolds the skill of thoughtful risk-taking.  

Play allows students to use trial and error in their learning without any heavy sense of failure. When students play, there is an assumption that they may need to practice, try another way, or start over from scratch; in these moments, they learn to truly embrace the word “yet” as a learner. “I haven’t figured out how to defend Lady Macbeth yet,” or “I haven’t figured out how to code this robodog to pick up the ball yet.” Playful learning gives students the opportunity to take intellectual risks safely without much of a negative consequence. As students persevere to problem-solve, they do so without any threat to their emotional well-being.

Play helps students develop socially and emotionally. 

When students learn together, they collaborate, communicate, negotiate, compromise, critically think, creatively innovate, empathize, and build confidence.  As conflict and cooperation ebb and flow within their team, students learn to regulate their emotions. While these skills are also practiced in small group work, students do not tend to feel emotionally connected to their workmates.  However, during playful learning, the light-heartedness and joyful attitude of students is more likely to come to the forefront to bond the group together emotionally in a way that is unique to play.

Play turns learning into an experience to remember. 

Play is intensely pleasurable. It energizes us; it enlivens us. It brings us joy. This emotional spike in combination with feelings of connection and pride pushes these learning experiences to the surface of a student’s memory. When you ask your students at the end of the year, “What were your favorite activities we did this year?  When did you feel most proud of your work?  When did you feel yourself growing in my class?” they nearly always answer with the playful learning experiences.

How Can You Incorporate Play into Your High School Classroom?

When incorporating play into your lessons, activities, or projects, think of yourself as the designer of a playful learning experience. Try to implement just one or two aspects of play for a single skill, concept, or chapter of a novel. Start small. As the designer, you determine the appropriate level of challenge for your students.

Here are five aspects of play to help you get started.

1. Bring in materials to explore concepts in a hands-on way.

Materials or toys that work as a “blank slate” are best, such as legos, playdoh, chalk, tinker toys, beads, and colorful balls. Challenge students to physically manifest a concept, a story, or an abstraction of some sort.

For example, students can

  • Use playdoh to make a metaphor for a president’s term.
  • Use chalk on the sidewalk to create an image-based timeline of events.
  • Calculate the circumference of different sized beach balls.
  • Use legos of different sizes and colors to demonstrate their understanding of dominant and recessive genetic alleles in a dihybrid cross.

2. Challenge your students to role-play.

Role-playing and simulations are some of my favorite ways to incorporate play into my classroom. They are also some of my students’ favorites, as they often allow students to kinesthetically and emotionally engage in the material in a new way.

For example,

  • In a history or English class, students can put on a mock trial of a person’s ethically or legally ambiguous decision. Want to take it one step further? Invite another teacher to come in and play the judge (robe and gavel optional).
  • In the sciences, students can get up and act out different processes, such as the different types of chemical bonding, osmosis, diffusion, and thermodynamic variants.
  • In psychology, health, and anatomy classes, students can role-play as patients who present symptoms of particular diseases or disorders. Perhaps the patient tells the story of how they broke a particular bone that students should be able to identify.
  • In writing classes, students can give a press conference as a politician with a questionable event in their past who wants to run for an election.

3. Gamify a specific skill.

For this aspect of play, try to create a game where students practice a particular skill, skill set, or use a narrow body of knowledge. Consider using some simple games you already know as a starting point, such as Bingo, Charades, or Pictionary. Is there a skill or body of knowledge you can gamify to change the students’ learning experience with the material?

If you don’t see how to adapt a simple game you already know how to play, consider how students can practice the skill with

  • An element of competition,
  • An element of urgency,
  • An element of chance,
  • An element of strategy,
  • An element of guessing,
  • Or a reward.

4. Prioritize student choice and agency in your design of a playful learning experience.

When designing a project as a playful learning experience, give a few clear requirements and a work schedule of suggested goals to have the project done by the due date. Then, let your students decide everything else.

I have found that when the requirements determine the structure of the project and the students have full control over the content, then their agency plays a more prominent role in the final outcome.

For example, after reading the myth of Prometheus and Pandora, my ninth-graders made a modern Pandora’s box where they chose 10 objects to represent 9 hardships and 1 hope in the world. Those were the only requirements of the project. Yes, they had to write up what they chose and why, and they had to present their modern Pandora’s boxes to the class, but the only requirements of the project itself were the number of objects. Students had full control over the content, the process, and the presentation.

With so much choice, my students were actually excited and proud to present their projects. They also anticipated seeing how their friends in other groups used their creativity, freedom, and control in different ways. Some wrapped their boxes like birthday presents. One created a Siren-like riddle on a note card sealed in a gold envelope. Another used a box that looked like bags of chips would be inside.

As far as the hardships, some chose hardships they personally dealt with; others chose more global and historical problems of the world. One symbolized gender inequity by putting a dollar in one bag and 82 cents in the other.  Another symbolized ignorance with a blindfold.

Ultimately, prioritizing student agency yielded the playful, creative, and high-order thinking required to complete the project.

5. When possible, lower the stakes on the grade to increase the likelihood of creative risk-taking.

Many students like to “play it safe” at school because they don’t know how to escape the pressure of grades. Try to lower the stakes of the grade on a project or completely take the grade out of the equation for a lesson-length game. By doing this, you show your students that you are not paying lip service to creative innovation. You really do want them to be creative and take thoughtful risks.

Another way you can encourage students to take thoughtful risks is to reward creative innovation on a project rubric. Perhaps meeting the requirements lands students at a 17/20 for the creativity category; to earn higher, you need to do something — beyond aesthetics — to earn it.  You will be amazed to see what your students come up with once they know it is safe and truly encouraged to think outside the box.

Play is a Lesson-Planning Gamechanger

Planning playful learning experiences for my students has become a bit of a game or a puzzle for me. I love approaching lesson-planning as if I were playing with a Rubik’s Cube; I try to match up a skill set, a concept, or a story with different aspects of play to see what learning experiences I can design that will work well for my students.

It requires patience, perseverance, and risk-taking, and that’s what makes it exciting to lesson plan. And on those days that I can solve the puzzle, I anticipate walking into my classroom to announce to my students the playful challenge ahead of them. And in those moments, I experience that emotional spike of joy right alongside my students.

Sources & Resources

Brown, Stuart L., and Christopher C. Vaughan. Play How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. Avery, 2010.

Conklin, Hilary G. “Playtime Isn’t Just for Preschoolers-Teenagers Need It, Too.” Time, Time, 3 Mar. 2015, time.com/3726098/learning-through-play-teenagers-education/. 

Gray, Peter. Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life. Basic Books, 2015.

Liu, Claire, et al. “Neuroscience and Learning through Play: a Review of the Evidence.” The Lego Foundation, Nov. 2017.

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Laura Gellin

ELA Teacher

With a Masters in English, a Certificate in Teaching Writing, and over 15 years of experience in the classroom, Laura is a full-time English teacher who prioritizes student engagement without sacrificing rigor. She has presented at numerous national and regional conferences, was...
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