A Learning Scientist’s Advice for Back to School: Let Them Play

By Guest Contributor Dylan Arena, VP, Learning Science, McGraw Hill School Group

I’ve been fascinated by both learning and playing for my whole life, but it wasn’t until graduate school that I fully appreciated how related they are. Now I love to remind people that play is the most powerful adaptation for learning in the history of the world. For millions of years, creatures across the animal kingdom have used play to grow, learn, and find their place in the world—exactly what we want for our children and students. As we all transition back into “school” mode amidst an ongoing pandemic, I’m excited to see how educators, families, and researchers can collaborate to foster children’s natural inclination to play their way towards social, emotional, and academic achievement.

Thanks to learning science, we know that game-based learning and play are effective.

Let’s start with a brief overview of some of the many ways that play can boost learning throughout the life course.

For younger learners, play requires learning (or making up) and remembering a set of rules, for whatever game or make-believe they’re engaging in. Remembering, adhering to, and adapting those rules requires them to engage working memory, inhibitory control, and cognitive flexibility—key executive functions in the brain. Additionally, play among little ones is often physical, and exercise has been shown to raise levels of both brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which stimulates nerve growth, and astrocytic glycogen, a brain fuel. And even when group play leads to disagreements among young learners, the resulting conflict-resolution process builds essential social skills.

For older learners (including adults), the neuroscience behind game-based learning is similar. Play leverages key cognitive functions like optimizing and planning, and it typically stimulates neurotransmitters that influence motivation, happiness, or altruism. Games can require learners to collaborate, communicate, and work together to solve problems. At a more basic level, as many educators have found after successfully incorporating play into their teaching practice, play can simply boost student engagement. I won’t say more here about why game-based learning works or what it looks like in the classroom, but for an academic deep dive on the topic, I would recommend this article on the Foundations of Game-Based Learning.

Play helped many navigate remote learning; it can help us navigate the return to in-person learning as well.

We know that academic, social, and emotional learning were hindered by the pandemic and that underserved student populations experienced disproportionate impacts from the chaos of the past year or so. But for all the concern around learning loss and the debate on how to combat it this year, there’s also been plenty of acknowledgment of learning that did occur, as children solved problems, explored, and grew with their families through unprecedented challenges.

Play appears on both sides of that conversation. When many children alleviated stress and boredom during last year’s school shutdowns by engaging in all kinds of unstructured play, their learning was not always about the specific academic topics that had been assigned. (My own kids, desperate to play but constrained by their school district’s website restrictions, discovered that some archived Google Doodles are simple games.) And of course, not all students enjoyed creative free time during remote learning. For some, school will always offer the best chances to play freely.

So yes, play can distract, but if harnessed productively, its benefits for learning can be powerful assets in classrooms trying to steer a course through this year’s turbulent waters. As we return to classrooms and their structure and routines, learning science encourages us to continue to make room for play—and to make that play more meaningful with simple practices like asking young learners to reflect after playtime to help them organize their memories, inviting emerging readers to play rhyming games to build their understanding of word/sound relationships, or using collaborative games to reacquaint learners of all ages with the complexities of peer interactions.

And perhaps most powerfully, a sense of playfulness in both students and educators can mitigate the anxiety that clings to all of us as we return to old places in a very new context. Conditions will continue to shift, and obstacles will continue to arise, through this school year and beyond. Making choices as obstacles arise amid shifting conditions is tough—but it’s exactly what games let us practice, safely, with low stakes and plenty of freedom to fail and try again.

The future of game play in the classroom is just beginning to take shape. 

Our education system’s efforts to emerge from the pandemic call for play that leverages what we know about learning science to make learning moments meaningful and encourage social interactions among learners. And despite all we know about game-based learning, we’re only beginning to tap into the potential of play to transform social and academic learning for every student.

Moving forward, I anticipate that sociocultural elements of each student’s experience will play a larger role in the way we design and implement games for the classroom. More generally, game-based learning can be used to personalize instruction, to meet learners where they are and help them get where they want to go. Education technology can certainly make personalization at scale more feasible, and although such technology is by no means necessary to create meaningful learning experiences through play, thoughtfully designed digital tools can support a virtuous cycle in which rich gameplay experiences can yield precise insights about student progress and motivations, which can help educators further personalize students’ journeys.

In the meantime, I’m hopeful that play can empower and energize learners returning to the classroom this season, and provide educators with opportunities to connect with students, restore relationships, and remind us all what it means to learn, grow, and explore together.

Dylan Arena, Guest Contributor

Dylan is a learning scientist with a background in cognitive science, philosophy, and statistics. He has studied, presented, and written extensively about next-generation assessment and giving meaning to learning-relevant data. Dylan developed software at Oracle, returned to Stanford for graduate school, and co-founded edtech startup Kidaptive, which was acquired by McGraw Hill Education in March 2021 to continue its mission of leveraging data to support learners and their teachers, parents, and other stakeholders. Dylan is or has been a youth mentor, tutor, substitute teacher, rugby/soccer/baseball coach, and advisor in the startup, nonprofit, and private-equity sectors.