July 5, 2023

A Pedagogy of Play: Supporting Playful Learning in Classrooms and Schools

Categories: Connected Learning, Featured, New Trends, Research

There’s a growing body of research exploring the relationship between play and learning. From anthropology to cognitive science to evolutionary biology, evidence shows that play offers powerful opportunities for children’s cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development. When children are playing, they are in a state of mind conducive to learning – they are engaged, relaxed, and challenged. In play children are often experimenting, building and testing hypotheses, pushing boundaries, and following their curiosities. On the idea that play in early childhood supports learning, psychologists Chu and Schulz go so far as to note that “in all of modern psychology, perhaps few claims are so uncontroversial.”

Yet there remains an uphill battle in fully weaving playful teaching and learning into the fabric of life in schools. Why?

Tensions between play and learning are perhaps not surprising. In play, children drive the agenda; in school, adults typically set behavioral and learning goals. In play, children often take risks; in school, adults try to keep children safe. In play, children can go big with sounds, messes, and seeming chaos; schools aspire to be places of order and calm. These tensions are often the inspiration behind statements like We don’t have time for play, we need to focus on learning.

But what if we viewed these tensions not dualistically, but instead as paradoxes? Not as either/or, but rather both/and statements?

Image: Observational drawings by student ‘plant scientists’ at Esikhisini Primary School in Pretoria, South Africa

Understanding how educators can balance and navigate these paradoxes—and embrace play as an integrated approach to teaching and learning, not an add-on activity or game—has been the focus of the Pedagogy of Play research initiative at Project Zero. Funded by the LEGO Foundation, we have been exploring how to cultivate and sustain school environments where children can drive the agenda while adult goals are met, where self-directed learning thrives within the constraints of school structures, and where responsible experimentation and risk-taking happen in a stable and nurturing environment.

Over the past eight years of our research, we have learned that one of the key ingredients in navigating these paradoxes is for school communities to come together around a collective understanding of what play means. Although play is universal and the relationship between play and learning is well established, behaviors and attitudes around play are culturally determined. Further, much of the research that’s been done has been by and about western populations.

Our project has foregrounded the idea that play research should be contextually based. Conducting research with, rather than on, school communities, we have helped educators develop their own map of playful learning (you can read more about our research process on our website). This map, or Indicators of Playful Learning, can ground stakeholder conversations about play and learning. The Indicators can also help educators more clearly plan for, and assess, playful pedagogy. At the same time, we also offer a new research methodology called Playful Participatory Research, which serves as part professional learning and part teacher research, putting educators in the drivers’ seat of play research.


In our new book,  A Pedagogy of Play: Supporting Playful Learning in Classrooms and Schools — offered at cost in print and as a free, downloadable PDF — we share an overview of our research and some answers to three core questions: Why do educators need a pedagogy of play? What does playful learning look and feel like in schools? How do educators support playful learning in classrooms and schools?

In the book we discuss six core principles of a pedagogy of play that provide a theoretical grounding for why we believe this pedagogy is necessary for integrating play into school learning:

  1. Play supports learning
  2. Playful learning in school requires play with a purpose
  3. Paradoxes between play and school add complexity to teaching and learning
  4. Playful learning is universal yet shaped by culture
  5. Playful mindsets are central to playful learning
  6. Supportive school cultures enable playful learning to thrive

In addition to a theoretical framework, we offer practices, strategies, and accompanying tools for supporting playful learning in classrooms and across schools. Short vignettes from schools across our research sites in Denmark, the US, South Africa, and Colombia make visible what playful practice can look like. And for educators interested in dipping their toes into teacher-research themselves, we share a few guides: one that outlines how to develop a collective understanding of what playful learning means in their community, and another that walks educators through the steps of creating and sustaining playful participatory research study groups.

Through our eight years of research, we have witnessed teachers leveraging play as a core pedagogical approach. The learning in these contexts is full of wonder, delight, curiosity, empowerment, and autonomy. We hope our book inspires others to cultivate cultures of play for learners of all ages (yes, teachers too!) in schools.


Guest post by Jennifer Oxman Ryan (Senior project manager & researcher, Project Zero’s Pedagogy of Play (PoP) initiative)

Jennifer Oxman Ryan is a senior project manager and researcher on Project Zero’s Pedagogy of Play (PoP) initiative. Funded by the LEGO Foundation, PoP is engaged in playful participatory research methods to investigate playful learning and what it means to embrace play as a core resource for how children learn in school. Jennifer has been with Project Zero since 2006, having worked previously on Agency by Design, the Good Play project, and Qualities of Quality: Excellence in Arts Education and How to Achieve It. Her current research interests include play, arts and maker-centered education, school/community partnerships, and professional learning communities. Jennifer co-designed and co-instructed Project Zero’s online course, Teaching and Learning in the Maker-Centered Classroom, exploring the promises, practices, and pedagogies of maker-centered learning and she co-designed and currently instructs Let’s Play: Teaching Strategies for Playful LearningShe has published in many venues, her most recent books being A Pedagogy of Play: Supporting playful learning in classrooms and schools(Project Zero, 2023), and Maker-Centered Learning: Empowering Young People to Shape their Worlds (with Edward Clapp, Jessica Ross, and Shari Tishman; Jossey-Bass, 2016).

Blog: popatplay.org | Twitter: @pedagogyofplay