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on Leading the Next Generation


What Does Play Have to Do with Learning?

Have you ever paused to observe how students learn best? Do you stop to reflect on the environments that are most conducive for learning? If you are in a typical classroom—it’s easy to forget. Somehow, many of us have lost the art of enabling students to learn—andI’m speaking of both higher education as well as K-12 education.

Author Erika Christakis is challenging educators to re-think their pedagogy. She’s asking parents to re-think the family calendar. She’s pushing coaches to evaluate the productivity of their team practices. You may remember Erika’s name. She stepped into the spotlight last fall, as a Yale lecturer, when her college basically told students what costumes to avoid on Halloween. Christakis suggested that perhaps we should expect these young adults to figure out what was offensive on their own. Must we really tell them how to behave at this point? When several Yale students accused her of being racially insensitive and demanded she step down, she told The Washington Post, “I worry that the current climate at Yale is not, in my view, conducive to the civil dialogue and open inquiry required to solve our urgent societal problems.”

What Erika saw is what I see on too many college campuses today. Smart students that have been pushed academically, but it’s been at the expense of social-emotional skills. They may have a 4.0 GPA, but they are incapable of discerning how to make wise choices or how to behave. We’ve kept one type of report card—but should be watching another.

Her challenge to us today?

Let students play. It will solve so many problems.

In an interview with NPR journalist Cory Turner, she says, “We’re underestimating kids in terms of their enormous capacity to be thoughtful and reflective, and, I would argue, that’s because we’re not giving them enough time to play and to be in relationships with others […] We have very crammed schedules with rapid transitions. We have tons of clutter on classroom walls. We have kids moving quickly from one activity to another. We ask them to sit in long and often boring meetings. Logistically and practically, their lives are quite taxing.”

Can Play and Learning Work Together?

Why do educators and policymakers see play and learning as mutually exclusive? This is the question Turner asked Christakis. Her response was insightful: “Yeah, it’s incredibly weird—this fake dichotomy. The science is so persuasive on this topic. There’s all kinds of research coming not only from early childhood but animal research, looking at mammals and how they use play for learning.”

So what makes it work?

  1. Relationships

Playful learning is embedded in relationships and social situations. It provides a spark to the learning environment. We are social creatures and we learn best in circles—not rows. Life change occurs when there is life exchange. Relationships accelerate learning. We need to be in community.

  1. Relevance

Playful learning is fostered best when topics are meaningful to students. What you say needs to be connected to the perceived “real life” of a student. If a learner can’t connect the dots between the subject and their life—it’s all theory and it will be forgotten. Students tend to learn on a “need to know” basis.

  1. Responsiveness

The key is the development of social emotional skills. Some schools understand this, but most do not. Students learn best in an environment that empowers all parties to respond to each other; to volley ideas and to interact. This is why social media has overtaken television as the top amusement among the younger generation.

We continue to teach for the test on subjects we’ve been told to grade. Sadly, it’s not what employers or future spouses are grading. When students are in playful learning, they are speaking and listening to each other, learning to self-regulate, expanding vocabulary and discovering how to think out loud. Playful learning, it seems, is just common sense.

Gaming as Learning?

May I offer you an illustration of what this discovery could look like in a classroom?

We have just positioned our Habitudes® in an on-line gamified platform to increase engagement and accelerate learning. (Our Habitudes series, introduces a variety of images that form leadership habits and attitudes.) They teach real-life social-emotional habits and attitudes, and now this resource has been further developed into a fun, interactive game that let’s students compete or collaborate. It offers points and badges as quests as the levels are completed. It makes learning feel like play. And play is what many students need in order to grow.

(You can check out both HabitudesOnline and HabitudesPlay HERE).

Why not consider finding a way and a time for students to play and learn? Everyone wins.


  1. Christine Harm on March 10, 2016 at 12:53 pm

    I’ve been a drama practitioner (educator, director, designer, facilitator) for close to 25 years now here in Queensland, so this idea is not something new to me, Tim. It just seems to have come ‘full circle’ since my university days (kind of like fashion).

    I attended the Drama Australia Drama New Zealand conference last August in Sydney, where the dominant discussion was ‘Drama as Pedagogy’ (once again). There are many internationally recognised researchers and practitioners exploring exactly this sort of learning – what we once called ‘aesthetic learning’ or ‘learning from the inside out’. It is precisely what allows people of any age to ‘put themselves in someone else’s moccasins’ (to quote Harper Lee) and walk around in them a while. If we want to build empathetic leaders, those who understand not just the context but also the community, then you are right – PLAY must be returned as the central pedagogy for leadership education. In fact, last year the Welsh government dedicated £10M to the Creative Learning through Arts Action Plan, firmly placing drama as one of the most effective methods for deep, lasting learning.

    Just for your own interest, there are some internationally renowned researchers and practitioners whose work you might access for this field – Dr Brad Haseman & Dr Judith McLean from QUT, who have been using Process Drama to work with Health Dept Executives (yes, adults!) to improve workplace culture. Dr Peter O’Connor from University of Auckland also has supervised research in utilizing Drama praxis for positive youth development. His work on Everyday Theatre (through Applied Theatre Consultants Ltd.) in a ‘gamified’ process drama was a full-day workshop presented last year, in which I participated – and I cannot speak highly enough of the effect it had on all participants as a watershed moment in seeing (or being reminded of) the power of process drama to both empower and heal youth-at-risk. The innovative methodology behind the use of an ‘online game construct’ as the organising device for applied theatre was particularly perceptive and conducive to engaging, en-roling and empowering student participants.

    I don’t know what sharing these links (or random thoughts) with you might lead to, but I just had to take the opportunity to let you and your team know that you are not alone in your concern for our coming generations and some of us are already using our training to change youth through aesthetic engagement with their own and other generations.

    I now very much look forward to your webinar in a couple of weeks time… Christine Harm, Gold Coast, Qld.

    • Tim Elmore on March 14, 2016 at 3:32 pm

      Hi Christine,

      Honored to have a leader from Australia in this discussion. Thank you for weighing in and sharing those links. I look forward to researching more about their work. It might spark another blog post :).

      I appreciate your heart for the next generation and being willing to adjust your pedagogy to its needs. Educators like you are my heroes.

      I look forward to having you be part of the conversation on the webinar. Your input will be invaluable.


  2. Cris Petersen on March 16, 2016 at 6:09 pm

    Hi Tim,

    thank you for maintaining this amazing blog. Longtime reader but first time poster. I am a teacher and coach. I have been doing both for approximately 15 years. I very much believe in the importance of play. Play allows us to connect knowledge in a positive emotional state. We “played” today in my Spanish class. Every student took turns in our math races on the board. We kept score but that was not really the important issue. Not a single of my 175 students refused to play and I had students who could not wait until it was their turn to challenge others. One particular student really made my day. He is autistic and does not communicate much, other than pointing out when I make grammatical mistakes in English on a PowerPoint. Today when he came up he immediately drew something on the board and than kicked some serious butt. You could tell that he had fun and I saw a smile.

    Similar to play I am a story teller in class and this year I wondered if I do it too much but overwhelmingly, students told me that it breaks up the daily routine for them and that they remember vocabulary or grammar much better because they connect it to my stories. The same happens when we play. As a student myself I needed to play and coincidentally every profession and educational program I have been a part of has been hands-on.

    Thank you again,


    • Tim Elmore on March 17, 2016 at 2:38 pm

      Great to meet you, Cris. Your comment made my day. Educators like you are my heroes and are making a significant difference in the lives of so many students. Thank you for leading the next generation.

      I hope to see you weigh in on many more discussions. I value your input and perspective.

      • Cris Petersen on March 20, 2016 at 9:15 am

        Hi Tim,

        Thank you for the kind welcome. I have been following your blog for a while now and really love what you have to say about leading young minds and fostering leadership qualities in them. It’s a difficult and delicate task but tremendously needed especially in times where compliance in schools is favored over free thinking.

        I plan on posting more frequently. My schedule has not allowed me more than reading in the last few years but there is an end in sight at the end in April. I posted because it was an assignment for a Teacher leadership class I am taking as part of my masters degree in ESL.

        I have also been coaching for 15 years and your posts give me some great insights on how to empower my students and athletes.

        Thank you so much.


        • Tim Elmore on March 22, 2016 at 3:07 pm

          I completely understand, Cris. Today’s educators are being pulled in so many directions and there doesn’t seem enough time in the day to get everything done. Congrats on getting you masters. That is quite a chapter in life to close.

          I’m excited to have more conversations on here in the future.


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What Does Play Have to Do with Learning?