Flickr: Ernst Vikne

By Aran Levasseur

The goal of the videogame “Civilization” is to build a civilization that stands the test of time. You start the game in 4000 B.C. as a settler and, with successful gameplay, can create a civilization that lasts until the Space Age. Throughout the game, you need to manage your civilization’s military, science, technology, commerce and culture.

One doesn’t read “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” to develop strategy before playing the game. One starts by playing. This is true for all videogames. You start by exploring the world with curiosity and begin to develop a hypothesis of what you’re supposed to do. Through trial, error, pattern recognition, logic and chance you continually reformulate your trajectory.

This model of learning is not only effective for videogames but for all digital tools, and I would argue that play — especially in the digital sense — is emerging as a pedagogical keystone for education in the 21st century.

Stuart Brown, M.D., explains in his book, Play, how a range of scientific disciplines have revealed the importance of lifelong play. Playfulness amplifies our capacity to innovate and to adapt to changing circumstances. Adults who are deprived of play are often rigid, inflexible and closed to trying out new options. Play is an active process that reshapes our rigid views of the world.


Play is also a powerful vehicle for learning, something that’s been underscored for me in my work at San Francisco University High School where we began a one-to-one iPad program in the fall.

The iPad has been hyped as a device that will revolutionize education. And, while I’ve witnessed glimmers of this potential, it isn’t microwavable. Migrating from an analog to a digital environment sounds simple enough, but the reality has been more disruptive.

Disruption can signal the onset of innovation, but this isn’t comforting to the organizations and individuals that are at the epicenter of such turbulence. Yet with a schema of play, we can start to mitigate the resistance to change.


The virtues of Apple’s intuitive interfaces have been widely extolled, and while you don’t need to be computer-savvy to navigate the operating system, there still is a learning curve. As we’ve designed training programs to make the learning curve as frictionless as possible, I’ve noticed that sessions that put a premium on play were not only more effective at cultivating the targeted skills, but also encouraged a growth mindset.

The atmosphere of play created a sandbox where both students and faculty could explore the features of the device and apps with the spirit of curiosity and experimentation. Rather than solely being guided through this virtual landscape, they were learning how to orient and guide themselves. Within this learning model, the teacher or trainer shifts into more of a coaching role. The value of this approach extends beyond the classroom because students begin to develop a self-reliance that enjoys independent experimentation and exploration.

Play is vital for normal cognitive, social and emotional development. It reduces stress and increases well-being. Absence of play leads to maladaptive behavior.

As positive as play is, it requires the ability to make mistakes. It implies being able to entertain multiple scenarios and outcomes. Bubble logic, i.e., our testing culture, is diametrically opposed. Our systems of education haven’t prepared us to think and act playfully, nor do our institutions of work by and large encourage this behavior. Yet it is this kind of playful disposition that is the muse of all great thinkers, artists and innovators.

Joichi Ito, the director of the MIT Media Lab, in a recent New York Times essay emphasized the correlation between innovation and play. In Ito’s view, retaining childlike qualities such as idealism, experimentation and wonder is vital for innovation. In his words, “I don’t think education is about centralized instruction anymore; rather, it is the process establishing oneself as a node in a broad network of distributed creativity.”

Play is about exploring the possible. In times of rapid change, exploring the possible becomes an essential skill. We don’t have maps for the territory of tomorrow. As a result, all citizens must become explorers of this emerging world. The best way to prepare for the emergence of the future is to learn how to be comfortable with uncertainty. To be comfortable with uncertainty, one must remain fluid, receptive and creative — in a word: playful.

Aran Levasseur has taught taught middle school history and science, integrating technology to enhance his teaching and student learning. Currently he’s the Academic Technology Coordinator at San Francisco University High School.
The article was originally published by PBS MediaShift, covering the intersection of media and technology. Follow @PBSMediaShift for Twitter updates, or join us on Facebook.
The Power of Play in Learning 4 January,2012Tina Barseghian

  • R2D2

    Check out Plants HD ( science app showcasing the touch and play based learning made possible by the IPad.

  • Thanks for this post. I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of playing/technology/learning in middle school and it was really valuable to see how others value playing. 

  • Anonymous

    Thinking specifically about play, iPads, and teachers. I wholeheartedly agree that teachers learn more, better appreciate the new capabilities, and overall enjoy the experience when play is a central part of the experience! I’ve tried to build play and exploration (is that a sister concept?) into the activities in our workshops, but when trying to share that virtually, I feel it is getting a little lost. Here’s where we are so far:

    Guess we need to play around with that a little more …

  • Anonymous

    I think the critical issue is not whether play is beneficial and productive, but rather how to encourage it in our environment. Just about everyone would rather do what they do as play rather than as work. The challenge is for leaders to trust the play process and be tolerant of false starts, failures, confusion, uncertain pay off and loss of control. I think the issue is less of a need for personal embracing of change and more about how to create more environments, situations, and systems  where play is encouraged.

  • I love this piece, Aran. The sandbox is a powerful place and the simple rules and words of wisdom still hold true in the Sandbox we find ourselves in today. 

    I summarized these lessons here in the Sandbox Manifesto:

    We must give our students and ourselves Permission to Play! Thank you for the reminder!

  • Being stimulated and engaged
    with the subject matter always helps one learn better – even if they don’t
    realize they are learning anything at all! Play learning makes it meaningful
    and enjoyable and that is what makes it effective! Great article, great
    insights – although you can learn something from most experiences of play, they
    don’t need to be plugged in experiences, just ones that open your mind and
    stimulate your curiosity.


    @PlaSmart | @Perplexus1 |

    /PlaSmart /PlaSmartPerplexus /PlasmaRide

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