When you watch a student play — when you watch anyone play, really — you can practically see their brain grow. Their eyes come alive, they poke and prod and test and ___… and it really does work. Play produces tangible, chemical changes in the brain; these changes are associated with improved learning and memory, brain plasticity, and resistance to neurodegeneration. These results are durable across ages and cultures, and even across species. Brains are built to play!

If you’re looking to leverage the power of play in your classroom, you can do it in a couple of ways. It’s helpful to think of two different flavors of play: playing downhill, and playing uphill. Let’s explore what those mean, and how you can use the uphill/downhill framework to incorporate a variety of play into your classroom.

Playing Downhill

Playing downhill alludes to having a playful attitude toward life and learning. It refers to any situation where student curiosity is sparked, and where students are encouraged to follow their questions to see where they lead. We can foster a playful attitude with some specific teaching strategies that encourage students to play downhill.

Messing About: In order to understand a concept deeply, students need to be able to connect abstract concepts to the physical world. Help them develop their hands-on understanding by allowing them to experiment and explore with physical manipulatives before using them for more formal learning. Have students structure their thinking by making observations, verbally or in writing, as they follow their curiosity to see where it leads! 

Tech-splorations: Technology can allow students to explore in self-guided ways. Build a Thinglink to foster student exploration (check out Blue Apple’s Wonderful World or Field Trip Around the World activities for examples). Another great approach is to create your own tech-splorations using Hyperdocs, which allow you to customize the scope of sites your students can use to explore. 

Simulations: Let your students play with ideas by using the power of simulations. Phet, from the University of Colorado, has a huge variety of scientific simulations. Students can explore history with History Simulations. Or, you can set up a more analog simulation like The Baboons’ Dilemma or Fish On! 

Playing Uphill

Play can help us utilize the competitive spirit to improve student performance — but it doesn’t have to be all about creating winners and losers! Instead, have your students work together to achieve a goal. Keep track of how well students do over time, and allow them to compete against previous versions of themselves. You’ll level up the cooperation that occurs in your classroom while helping students develop a drive to succeed.

Cooperative Play: Sometimes, the team needs to work together to solve some gamified problem; when that’s the case, they’re engaged in cooperative play. The Winding Words game is an example; students create a chain of rich vocabulary words, then work together to re-create their chain precisely. Airplane is a wonderful cooperative game that teaches clear thinking and works on how-to writing. This simple, powerful idea comes in all shapes and sizes, and is appropriate for younger and older students.

Team Trivia: Another game that’s often used competitively, but which can use the power of playing uphill to help kids compete against a standard or a previous best. Set up a Jeopardy!-style game, but instead of keeping track of team or individual scores, keep a running class total. Challenge the team to score a certain number of points 

Gamified Classroom Management: Extend the idea of cooperative competition to increase student ownership of your classroom management needs. Identify an area of improvement as well as a metric to use for measurement, then work together to continue to grow in that regard. For instance, you can set a class target for increasing homework return rate or reducing transition time between classes. Use the concepts from “General Ideas” below to gamify your results!

By incorporating a variety of play — both playing uphill and playing downhill — into your classroom, you’ll boost student engagement while bolstering your brainpower. Let the games begin!

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