Permission to Play

In any given year, teachers generally have about 180 days, which is only 36 weeks or 1,260 hours, to teach the state adopted standards to their students. While the mandates of NCLB and threats of not meeting AYP may be gone from current ESSA legislation, teachers and school administrators continue to face a myriad of pressures to ensure levels of student achievement continue to rise. With such a limited amount of time and high stakes assessments looming, expert teachers must make crucial decisions as they design their instruction. Justifying the use of precious instructional time to play games in class seems untenable. Yet, research shows that using well-planned instructional games can extend learning opportunities, increase student engagement, and improve student achievement. The way I see it these research findings give educators everywhere permission to play.

“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” This proverb has been around since 1659, and it refers to the need for play in a person’s life. If all that our lives consisted of was toil and effort, then our lives would truly be dull and boring indeed. This adage can be applied in so many areas of our lives, but for the purposes of this conversation I want to apply it to how we approach teaching. All work and no play in our instruction can become dull and monotonous quickly, and our students zone out long before we accomplish our instructional objective. One the other hand, play without purpose accomplishes very little either. There must be a delicate balance struck if we are going to teach rigorous lessons and keep students engaged at the same time.

Educational professionals like Eric Jensen, Robert Marzano, Marcia Tate, and Phil Schlechty present us with quite an impressive research base when it comes to differentiating our instruction. One impressive finding, cited by Eric Jensen, comes from the work of Silvia Bunge at the University of California. In that study, participants showed gains of 32% in reasoning skills (13 IQ points) from purposeful use of games to train the brain. Robert Marzano states that, on average, the use of academic games in the classroom can affect a 20-percentile point gain in student achievement. Marcia Tate, best known for her list of 20 instructional strategies that engage the brain, states that playing games encourages laughter and puts the brain in an optimal state for learning. Phil Schlechty, of the Schlechty Center in Louisville, Kentucky, states that when students are presented engaging and meaningful activities student achievement improves dramatically. For this to happen, Schlechty says that teachers must transition from being “lesson planners” into becoming “instructional designers.”

The impetus to improve student achievement from governmental agencies, county offices, building administrators, parents, students, and others in our society often leaves teachers with the sense that they must work harder and smarter. Whether it is the teacher in front of the room, the student slumped in his seat, or the principal juggling the various demands of her job, we all need the opportunity to do things a little differently. Teachers need freedom to choose effective ways to engage students and permission to play. Research tells us that interactive games activate different parts of our brains and make it possible to close the achievement gap for many of our students.

The bottom line is this: if we want our students to be engaged in our instruction, then our instruction needs to be engaging.

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