Forum Friday – Do You Let Your Students Play?

On many Fridays I like to take a topic that I’ve found from elsewhere on the Internet and share my thoughts on it here. It’s a nice way to hear what others are thinking, learning, and how they’re growing in their educational lives. That, and it makes for some good personal reflection.

I spent this week reading through a couple of articles for my graduate level seminar course. The one that caught my attention the most was a paper that came out of the MIT Media Lab, written by Mitchell Resnick. The paper, (which you can download and read with this link) “Computer as Paintbrush: Technology, Play, and the Creative Society“, paints a picture of playtime as learning time. Not just the average run of the mill playtime with blocks, crayons, and toys; but rather play time as serious problem-solving engagement time. Something almost akin to the Montessori method; allow children to have the tools and the time to learn, experiment, fail, and ultimately achieve on their own.

Which got me thinking. In my unique situation as a computer lab teacher, my lessons, teaching goals, and methods can often conflict with the student’s expectations. The students come into my room and they want to play on the computer. Games, drawing, internet; they don’t care what it is, they just want to play. I have clear standards and goals for them to master, or at least be introduced to, and can’t justify letting them play all the time. Which is the problem. I personally believe that allowing a learner time to play with a new program, website, or piece of software, will help them pick up new skills faster, make deeper connections with how programs work in general, and give them the chance to discover those all important “this is totally SWEET ” moments.

As I write this, a 4th grade class is exploring Art Rage, a fabulous art simulation program that all schools should have installed on their computers. This is the 3rd year I’ve worked with this program, and by giving them time to play, they make important discoveries about what’s important to them in the program. Some students become experts in erasing, undoing, and eliminating mistakes with the many tools they have. Others get excited when they discover that they can zoom in on their painting, or move the canvas around with a right-click drag. And the truly artistic start playing with all of the drawing tools, and manipulating the settings until they can draw the most perfect bunch of purple grapes. Their excitement with the painting program is ten fold the amount it would be if I had simply told them to open up this new painting program, and then had them start painting and authoritatively instructing them on how to use the tools. When I assign them their self-portrait project next week, they will feel much more prepared, and feel more confident because they’ll be basing their work on their own personal trails and errors, not on what “Mr. Rimes told them to do”.

However, there needs to be a balance. If I let them play for too long, or too often, students will enter my room with the notion that “computer lab = play time”. Many students will enter asking “Do we have free time today?!” week after week in hopes that they will get to play. In every class there are also a few students who will purposely neglect work in order to continue playing. They already understand the concepts I’m teaching them, and how to manipulate the program, I just haven’t provided them with a compelling enough reason to stop playing.

Then again, there are some programs that I can’t expect the students to just “play with” and figure out. Google Earth is a great example of a very unintuitive experience for elementary students. Flying to places is simple enough, but creating placemarks, adding folders, and then organizing those placemarks by folders is something I have yet to see a student just “pick up” on their own. It requires careful planning on my part to disguise the tutorials for Google Earth as “games.” I imagine the challenge is akin to what video game designers must go through in planning tutorials for their proprietary game or control systems.

Where to strike the balance between play and instruction can be difficult, especially with a classroom full of a wide range of learning styles, disabilities, and students that bring with them a diverse background knowledge. How do we as educators, find the perfect balance of play?


  1. I often let students play with new programs before I try to teach with it. I find this often helps a lot. This does two things. First they learn the interface on their own and will already know the basics before we get to the assignment. Second, they will typically be more focused on the assignment.

    This is particularly true for open ended sites or tools like Ning or for some of the PhET Simulations I use (Cirtuits and Energy Skate Park). These types of tools have lots of possible uses and the more inquisitive students will find themselves distracted by the options. In the past I didn’t build time into my lessons to let them play and we were never able to get done what we should have been able to. Now I build in time and encourage them to play and they get more done than I would have thought.

    Steve Dickies last blog post..Easy Fund Raiser

  2. I do let them play once in a while. In many cases, it is still learning and it does give them a sense of ownership because they can often choose what they want to do. Sure, I have other things to cover, but sometimes they just need a break.

    I have discovered some new websites via the students and also have discovered some new tricks with some of the software we use – all because the kids were “playing.”

    Chad Lehmans last blog post..I’m Thinking about My Position

  3. I agree play is essential for learning, and I strongly believe that learning, or more so the realization that one is learning or catching on to something, is innately fun. As an elementary art teacher, the concept of playing, and how to balance play and instruction, come into, well, play a lot. When I allow students to discover things are their own, for example, allowing students to explore ngakids online, I agree that because they feel they are given control of the steering wheel to find their way through activities on the site, students do take ownership of their learning experience. When kids are given the opportunity to, for example, find out “what happens when I click on this”, I think the learning process can take place on a deeper level, especially when they can share their findings with othe students and teach what they have just learned.

  4. I believe this is an interesting question. When and how do we decide that “play” time is appropriate. I believe it is all about setting standards. Perhaps if your students know they have the first/last 5 minutes of class to play with a specific program they will not be tempted to do so during your instructional time. I believe you are correct in saying that the play time is absolutely important to the learning process because it is greatly differentiated for each student. I know that my students enjoy having free computer time to explore some sites I have set up on my portaportal. I encourage them to seek out new games and ideas to share with the rest of the class. They do a great job of offering up suggestions – even if they are 4th graders! 🙂
    .-= Stephanie Smith´s last blog ..Finally… =-.

  5. I am a fourth grade teacher and I have found that whenever I am introducing a new web site in the computer lab I need to allow my students time to explore the site before I can expect them to pay attention to what I want to teach them. I often preview the web site in the classroom using my ACTIVboard to show the students what the site looks like and some parts they might like to explore. Then, I explain they will have a set amount of time to explore on their own before it is time to get to whatever my assignment is for the day. I have found this works really well.

  6. My students love sharing new games and interesting information found on the web. Any time I can squeeze in extra time for my students to use the computer they are ecstatic. I am pleased when they come back to school and say they have used something at home that we used at school. By allowing students time to “play” on the computer we are allowing them to actively participate and guide their education.

  7. I agree, Jennifer! It IS important to let them play and be active in choosing their own education. Our district pushes Differentiated Learning and this is a great way to accomplish that. I also teach 4th grade. With our standards changing this year, technology can only help us ease the process!

  8. Hi Ben and Fellow Teachers,

    I teach Hebrew to first and second graders in Ann Arbor. I am currently taking a class in 21st Century Literacy and I am working hard to broaden my technological horizons. I am new to this! In my search for interesting and educationally relevant blogs, I discovered your blog.

    I think your question about finding balance with play is a fascinating one. Previous comments all point to the importance of play. But when do you stop playing –and start working?

    I have an interesting perspective on this topic as a former preschool teacher. At the preschool level, your play IS your work.

    • Children learn intuitively through play.
    • They experiment and learn by trial and error.
    • They develop social skills and learn how to negotiate and collaborate.

    These are just some ideas that come to mind. I think you have the right idea that play is essential. It seems like you are not completely clear how to transition to a more “teacher directed” aspect of your lesson. Am I intuiting correctly?

    Here are some suggestions:
    Following a designated period of play that you specify in advance to your students, ask the children to share and demonstrate their discoveries. You might frame it by asking your students in advance to find the ten best features about the software program you are learning and show how it works – or some such idea.

    If you think about the curriculum you are trying to “cover” for the month, it is conceivable that the whole first period of computer time is pure play. The second period could be sharing. The third could be applications and assignments that you would like to introduce. You could structure it any way you want. But the main thing is making sure you communicate this structure ahead of time so the students know what to expect.

    A side note… As a “digital immigrant,” who is slowly getting over my “fear of technology, “ I am very aware that the key to feeling more comfortable swimming in the “cyber pool” is having the time to “play.” My biggest conflict is freeing up the time necessary to play. So let your kids play. They will probably teach you a thing or two in the process! Let me know what you think…

    On a side note,
    I am very interested in learning more about the thrust of your program at U of M. How do you like the program so far?


  9. Stephanie, What part of the world do you teach in? I teach in Alabama and we have new technology standards going into effect this year. Not to mention we are being pushed to use the web based assessments with our new reading program. I do like that though because it is graded for me and I get a page telling me what standards each individual student needs to work on. I used the web based assessments for the end of unit assessments last year and never even thought about my students accessing the site at home. However, I had one student tell me she did. The site is made for students to use at home, I just never highlighted that point since it was our first year and I was still learning. Hopefully this next year I will be able to better utilize the site.

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