Play and Experimentation in the Classroom

I bee-lined through the attendees leisurely eating lunch, to ensure a spot at the, “Learn to Play, Play to Learn” workshop at the TEACH@CUNY event (Allison Lehr-Samuels & Zoe Sheehan). I didn’t need to awkwardly waiver between classrooms, the description piqued my interest at first glance: “How can faculty embrace playing and experimentation in the classroom? In this workshop we discuss strategies and examples of how uncertainty and risk can lead to a collaborative learning environment.” The workshop did not disappoint: I played and I learned.

The workshop started with a question: What do you like or what worries you about the idea of playing or experimentation in the classroom? Using the colorful marker and graph paper provided, I scribbled some thoughts:

Play is fun! It’s interactive! It’s a good way for first year students to make friends. I’m drawn to the idea of learning through play and collaboration, in part because that’s what I feel I get to do as a member of a research lab. I worry about implementing play into the classroom, as it might be met with unenthusiastic undergraduates.

Our next instruction was to fold that piece of paper into a paper airplane:

(I can fold cranes, not planes)

Going around the room, we took turns standing up, introducing ourselves and sharing what goals we had in mind when folding our airplane (distance, speed, “just the best I can do,” “I want it to spin,” were some of the goals) before launching our plane. I noticed the group becoming more at ease. We laughed at our dive-bombs, applauded a smooth landing and apologized to those we nearly hit. Additionally, we learned about each other through our goals; some even offered brief anecdotes about childhood experiences with paper airplanes.

We were then asked to identify a specific problem with our airplane and fold it again, attempting to fix the problem. Rather than working solo, we we allowed to collaborate with one another or consult the internet. Some consulted with those who had made successful planes, others coupled-up and bumbled through the process together.

(“Winging” it)

We repeated the process of taking turns, sharing the problem we wanted to fix and launching our planes. Most people had loftier goals this time around. When it was my turn, I admit that folding the plane this time was more anxiety ridden. I kept changing the folds, I didn’t want to confront the internet and its’ infinite instructional websites, and I didn’t seek a collaborator. Some airplane designs successfully addressed the problem identified, others did not. However, the conversations, compliments and laughter continued.

After our second flight attempts, we peer-shared our responses to the initial question and were asked to identify a specific problem in the classroom that could be addressed by experimentation and play. This proved to be a difficult task and unfortunately, due to time, no one was able to provide a concrete example. This was somewhat disappointing, but being a player in this single activity was extremely gainful, especially as I prepare to teach my first course.

With thoughtful contributions from the facilitators and fellow attendees, here’s what I learned by playing with paper airplanes and why I will implement this activity on the first day of my Introduction to Psychology course next Semester:

  1. Play creates a classroom culture of experimentation.
  2. This particular activity rapidly encourages students to collaborate with one another.
  3. Building a paper airplane is an exercise in acknowledging your work, the process of generating that work and most importantly, reflecting on it.
  4. There was no expectation from the instructor regarding the airplane: This might reduce students’ anxiety/preoccupation with regard to expectations.
  5. It demonstrates that it’s OK to experiment, take risks and exercise creativity.
  6. Students get a chance to express a little about themselves. This fosters friendships within the classroom.
  7. The attention was distributed among the students equally, rather than a strict back and fourth between Instructor and Student.
  8. It helps the instructor recognize individual approaches to a task.
  9. Play is an informal way of fostering dialogue between Students and the Instructor.
  10. Practically, it can be used to do a Question of the Day as well as taking attendance.

For those curious…



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