How can we Support Students? Let them Play

If we have learned anything during this abrupt shift to distance learning, it is that learning is an embodied, multimodal process; and that computers probably won't be replacing teachers anytime soon. People learn by exploring their physical environment, engaging with tools, and– most importantly– engaging in these activities with others. The transition to an instructional setting that is not conducive to these activities, and the pandemic's emotional toll, has made distance learning extremely challenging. I was able to gain greater insight into the challenges of distance learning as a graduate student at Northwestern University in 2019: when in February, the university announced that for the remainder of the school year, all classes would be held remotely.

For many reasons, my remote learning experience was not as bad as I thought it would be, especially since the courses I enrolled in for that trimester (which I had enrolled in before the shift to remote learning) were extremely engaging/interactive. One of my courses involved designing and building interactive technology: specifically, technology that allows the user to interact with digital tools using movement and multiple senses. The other course that I took was introduction to web design: which centered on building a website or an application to serve a purpose of one's choosing. Despite these courses' engaging nature, the strain this instructional model/the dumpster fire was having on students was palpable.

However, during remote learning, there were moments–and eventually, entire class sessions– where student participation was exceptionally high: which I defined as a session where 50% or more of the students present contributed to the conversation either verbally or in the chat. I decided to dedicate an independent study to exploring the kinds of activities in remote classes that led to high levels of participation. Upon analysis, a clear trend emerged: out of all of the sessions where there was a high level of student participation, 90% of these sessions involved play.

These playful activities involved: working in small groups to design an interactive museum exhibit (prototype), building a tangible technology tool using circuits, design showcases, collaborative web building exercises, and working on our personal website/application in small groups with our instructor. Not only did these activities allow students (and myself) to explore and demonstrate creativity, but they also created opportunities for social interaction: which is something students engaging in distance learning are in desperate need of.

In addition, patterns emerged in the types of activities that resulted in low levels of participation (sessions where 30% of students or less contributed to the conversation). The activities that resulted in the lowest level of participation were: discussing the weekly reading, and carrying out new/complex procedures– for example, a new programming concept; participation was even lower when the instructional grouping was whole-class, as opposed to small-groups. However, based on the projects I saw, students' lack of participation on the occasions described above did not adversely impact their project's quality or their mastery of concepts/procedural skills–as evidenced by their project. Play had been the vehicle for mastery.

After all of the data collection, coding, and analysis, my study boils-down to a single, straightforward recommendation: that when students return to in-person learning, let them play. Build content into play, use play for social-emotional learning, and most importantly, let kids play just to play. If we slam kids over the head with rigor, they will likely shut down (they were shutting down from all of this "rigor" before; it was just easier to ignore). We have to let kids heal, and play is one of the most powerful tools we have. We might even see that letting kids play is a practice that we should keep around even after some semblance of normal has returned.

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