Lets play a game…

I was listening to a podcast by This American Life on the way to work this morning and the episode on “The Land of Make Believe” struck a chord with me as an educator. The story was about a family of 12 children who were raised on a boat, a play boat, in their backyard. So authentic was their experience – allocated ranks and roles on the ship – that it remains one of the most influential experiences of their lives.

Now the children didn’t live on the boat, it was merely the source of entertainment and play during their childhood. But as the (now adult) children reminisced about real night patrols, medic responsibilities and galley duties I reflected on how effective this type of exercise would be in the classroom.

Construction Play and Pretend Play are the subject of much research into pre and early primary education and have been shown to be highly effective in helping students manage their behaviour, emotion and self-regulation. In fact studies of students from K to 3 have shown that a lack of play (or participation in direct instruction classrooms) results in increased delinquency, increased emotional issues, increased hyperactivity and distractible behaviours, even increased hostility and aggression.[1] I’m not too sure whether it is too big of a leap to assume that direct instruction in classrooms beyond Year 3 would also result in these outcomes, although perhaps to a lesser extent.

I experienced a great example of classroom pretend play last year. Whilst attending the Instructional Rounds institute at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, I had the opportunity to visit The Shady Hill School. Best known for their highly successful Teacher Training Course, the school also offers a unique curriculum to its students; an exploratory learning experience, based around central themes for each year level. For the past 70 years, grade three students have been studying the central theme of whales and whaling (Until the late 80’s whaling was a major industry in the area). Here is the course outline from their website:

“In the second part of the year, we focus on the whaling industry of the 19th century. Topics of study include life aboard a ship, whalers’ families, techniques of hunting and processing whales, and the tools of the trade. [In strikingly similar circumstances to those children in the podcast] the students learn about this time in history primarily through role-play as they enact a semester-long whaling voyage. As they travel, they learn about the geography, customs, and whaling practices of several whaling cultures. We make use of authentic 19th century journals, more recent texts, videos, internet sources, demonstrations, and field trips.”[2]

What a fantastic learning experience this sounds like. And you only need to look at where the school alumni end up to conclude that this type of learning experience in the junior years is a highly effective model for teaching and learning.

Screen Shot 2015-11-26 at 7.58.06 am

(Left – The Steinfels family playing. Right – Students at Shady Hill School)

The children in the podcast reflected that by about age 12 they became less interested in playing on the boat and preferred not to engage in the role-play activities and games that came along with it. This suggests that educational play could be effective in an educational context up until students reach age 12 (or around Year 6). However, studies have also shown that role-play and simulation games in High School are effective in enhancing communication skills, through classroom discourse about the case and during the role-play, enhancing teamwork skills when researching characters with other students, enhancing content knowledge through research or inquiry investigations about the issue, and enhancing critical thinking skills through developing solutions to the problems presented in the case and developing arguments for their role-play characters.[3]

In order for educational play to be most effective it should include the following characteristics; firstly, and as the podcast suggested, the scenario and elements associated with the game should be as authentic as possible. The play should involve student choice and be based around student interests. Play should enable students to adopt another perspective and practice the rules appropriate for that perspective. For example, a student pretending to be a teacher will benefit from considering the classroom rules he is responsible for upholding.

I would love to say that I have given educational play a try in my High School classes and achieved outstanding outcomes as a result; however, I am yet to put my thoughts into action. Perhaps a goal for 2016. In addition to play relieving stress and anxiety, Bremeier and Greenblat found role-play and simulation games affect two major benefits; they aid the retention of learning material and they develop positive attitudes towards learning.[4] It sounds like something worth a shot to me.

I am keen to hear about your experience or aspirations with educational play, simulations and role-play. Please post a comment below to share your stories.


[1] Hart, Craig H.; Yang, Chongming; Charlesworth, Rosalind; & Burts, Diane C. (2003, April). Kindergarten teaching practices: Associations with later child academic and social and emotional adjustment to school. Paper presented at the biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, Tampa, FL.

[2] http://www.shs.org/Page/Apply/Welcome-to-Admission

[3] Cynthia C. M. Deaton & Michelle Cook (2012) Using Role-Play and Case Study to Promote Student Research on Environmental Science, Science Activities: Classroom Projects and Curriculum Ideas, 49:3, 71-76.

[4] Bremeier, M. E., & Greenblat, C. S. (1981). The educational effectiveness of simulation games: A synthesis of findings. Simulation & Games, 12, 307-332.

Picture credits go to Shady Hill School and This American Life


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