The Practice of Playful Learning: supports, strategies, and stories from the classroom [with Jennifer Ryan]

Think back to a memorable playful experience you had. 
What made it memorable?  
What made it playful?”

As part of our professional learning series, Jennifer Ryan, researcher and senior project manager of the Pedagogies of Play initiative at Harvard Graduate School of Education Project Zero, joined the CPSN to share with us her expertise on the practices of playful learning. The workshop started with a thought experiment to help teachers reflect on the memorable playful moments they experienced in their lives, albeit when they were 5 or 35.  Building on the idea that play can be, and often is, quite diverse among individuals, Jennifer shared some existing research on why play is important. However, given the importance of play highlighted through social, biological, cognitive, and neurological contexts in the existing literature, a key question considered in this webinar was why it is still so difficult to incorporate play in the classroom.  

Jennifer addressed this question by sharing her insights on the paradoxes of play and school and the existing tensions around these paradoxes. The contrast of each philosophy (the nature of school vs the nature of play), pushes an important debate around whether play and school are truly on two opposite ends of a learning spectrum, or whether (and how), play can be a pathway to learning.  

A critical strategy to address these tensions is through incorporating a whole school approach to the pedagogies of play. Each paradox can, then, be navigated through a shared vision of playful practices that ultimately acts as a guide.

Share a common vision, common belief and common ideas that play should be central to teaching and learning.

How Jennifer and her research team understand the nature of playful learning in schools and what a whole school approach to playful pedagogies looks like, is by creating indicators of playful learning. These indicators may look different for different institutions, countries, and territories, as, we already know, play looks very different for us all. These indicators are represented through psychological states (feels like) as well as observable behaviors (looks like). For information on the work that Jennifer and her team has done on exploring these indicators of playful learning in six schools in the United States, click here.

Below are the indicators found in the International School of Billund, Denmark, 3 South African schools, 5 Columbian schools and 6 US schools, as part of Jennifer and her team’s extensive research around what playful learning looks like in schools. The 3 indicators from the US schools (meaningful, joyful and empowering) are further broken down into what each indicator looked like and felt like.

Interested in digging deeper or co-creating your own playful indicators (as shown above), make sure to download their Playful Learning Indicator Guide: A Weekly Handbook for Research Teams !


So what were the key takeaways from this session?  

  • Incorporating play and learning doesn’t always have to be on two opposing ends, but play can be a pathway to learning  
  • Incorporating play comes with challenges and tensions in schools  
  • The first step to incorporating play in schools is through defining what playful learning is and looks like in your school community so you can think about how to bring it into your own practice.  

Each of these major takeaways is a research journey for educators and as an endnote, Jennifer shared her team’s latest publication “A Pedagogy of Play Supporting playful learning in classrooms and schools”. This tool is intended as a guide for educators to use in their own practices with the aim of supporting the planning, implementing, and reflecting on the critical incorporation of the pedagogies of play. You can discover five core practices and teaching strategies that promote cultures of playful learning here.

Learn more about Project Zero and pedagogy of play on their website or on their blog.

About Jennifer Ryan

Jennifer Oxman Ryan is a researcher and senior project manager at Project Zero (PZ), a research organization at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE). Her current work on the Pedagogy of Play initiative explores what it means to embrace play as a core resource for teaching and learning. She has been with Project Zero since 2006, having researched and published previously on playful learning, maker-centered teaching and learning, young people’s digital lives, and arts education. Jennifer has co-designed and instructed two PZ-HGSE online courses, one exploring learning through play and the other exploring teaching and learning in the maker-centered classroom. She is co-author, along with Project Zero colleagues, of Maker-Centered Learning: Empowering Young People to Shape their Worlds (Wiley 2016). Prior to working at PZ, Jennifer was a museum educator, professional development leader, and director of education for school/community partnerships. She lives in Maine with a family of makers and players, ages 13 through 49.

All documents and images are property of Project Zero.