Press Play to Have Fun Learning

As I walked into a Finnish school one morning, students were putting on their boots and grabbing their coats to go outside for recess. Fifteen minutes later, they were ready for the next class. After the lesson, students again collected their winter clothing and headed for the door. Recess again? I thought to myself. I asked the teacher what was going on. She explained that in Finland, students get a 15-minute break after each 45-minute class period. This is their time to socialize, play outside, catch-up on reading, to do practically anything they choose.

The Finnish school system advocates for a learning environment that is low stress and promotes play. After all, it is on the playground, in sports teams, and when gathering with friends that students learn how to communicate and get along with others. Play is not limited to these 15-minute break times in Finland. Students are encouraged to pursue their curiosities and engage in hands-on learning throughout the school day. Seeing students collaborate in a relaxing and safe environment indicates just how important it is for students to have fun during learning. In my opinion, the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks.

Play and PBL
It is difficult to measure play like you can content knowledge and the development of new skills. However, the effects of play are observable. And you don’t have to convince teachers in Finland of its benefit. During play, children learn and test out their social skills, take risks, learn content, and refuel their interest levels. Play does much more than drive fun. It sparks academic inquiry, which is fuel for project-based learning (PBL).

Play is a vital part of learning through inquiry because “…hands-on, inquiry based learning experiences…foster exploration, problem solving, discovery, and dramatization” (The Institute for Education Leadership, 2012). During PBL, students have numerous opportunities to participate in these elements of inquiry. Engaging in a project that personalizes learning, encourages experimentation, and contains real life implications naturally incites students’ curiosity. It's no secret that curiosity makes learning more enjoyable.

Play-Based Learning
Play-based learning is a pedagogical approached that consists of two different types of play. Free play is directed by the children themselves and guided play has some level of teacher guidance (Encyclopedia of Early Childhood Development). PBL encourages both kinds of play. During authentic learning activities, students get the autonomy to purse their interests and issues that matter to them. At the same time, students have the teacher as a facilitator to guide the utilization of resources, understanding of difficult material, and iterations of information gathering and product design.

The beauty of a play-based curriculum is that very young children can routinely observe and learn from others’ emotions and experiences. Through play, children learn to take turns, delay gratification, negotiate conflicts, solve problems, share goals, acquire flexibility, and live with disappointment. By allowing children to imagine walking in another person’s shoes, imaginative play also seeds the development of empathy, a key ingredient for intellectual and social-emotional success. from CNN’s Want to Get Your Kids into College? Let Them Play.

Fun Academy 
While in Finland on the Fulbright of Distinguished Award in Teaching Program, I had the pleasure of visiting Fun Academy. Fun Academy is a team of experts who develop fun learning environments, teaching methods, and gamified learning tools for teachers. The company has a complete kindergarten (early grades) learning package. I recommend downloading the free Future Astronauts Program. This activity prompts students to inquire, explore, discover, and connect with real life content.

The Future Astronaut Program is a 12-week program based on Finnish education expertise that adapts the real NASA Training for astronauts. It empowers early childhood educators to promote scientific thinking, mindfulness, physical activity, and teamwork within their classroom. The lessons and their activities guide the children to develop the core skill objectives while improving motor skills, communication, collaboration, self-awareness and much more!

Children of today are the decision makers of tomorrow. Future Explorers helps them understand how the world works now, so they can identify their core strengths and develop life skills for the future and a lifetime for learning.

Play Leads to Growth and Development
As students move through the inquiry process during PBL, they will do more than gain new knowledge and propose solutions for real-world problems. Students will also develop social and emotional competencies, especially if play with peers is encouraged. In so doing, students will be that much more prepared for future learning events. They will be equipped with the skills to lead and follow the rules, resolve conflicts, and support the emotional well-being of others. Your students have much to gain by participating (playing) in project-based learning activities. Their participation will lead to leadership. Your students are anxious to explore. Give them the chance to press "play" and have fun learning!

Further Reading
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