Monday, August 1, 2016

Incorporating Play Into Learning Design - Tip #101

What thoughts run through your mind when you see the photo above? 

Some of us may shake our heads and say, “That guy’s too old to play.” Meanwhile, others may smile as a similar memory flashes through their mind’s eye.

Built to Play, Built Through Play

A belief among a number of adults appear to be about play being frivolous, something extra, an add-on or something that’s nice to do when we have the time.  Furthermore, play is viewed as just a childish inclination which shouldn’t be around anymore. They believe play is different from and shouldn’t mix with more serious matters like work and learning. However such perspective, which defines play as an activity, is really a misconception.

Play is natural especially to human beings who are the biggest players of all, according to psychiatrist Stuart Brown, M.D. It’s a biological process that evolved to help animals - including humans - survive. Brown, who has studied more than 6,000 “play histories” (case studies), concludes that “play is part of our evolutionary history.” He defines play as a state of mind rather than an activity and believes we have a “drive to play and we are built to play.”

Play is encouraged among children because of its role in helping them understand the world and develop motor and social skills, among others. As we entered adulthood, we may have been told to leave play behind but we don’t really lose the “need for novelty and pleasure as we grow up,” says Scott G. Eberle, Ph.D, vice president for play studies at The Strong and editor of the American Journal of Play.

“Nothing lights up the brain like play,” Brown once said in a TED Talk. Play shapes the brain and is important to our adaptability, intelligence, creativity, innovation, and social and problem-solving skills. This means learning and play are not separate; they can co-exist.

Applying Play to Learning Design

A little play goes a long way. Brown says play is really more of a catalyst which “lights up” our brain and results in increased productivity and happiness in everything we do. In applying play to learning design, there’s no need to overhaul our existing courses. Adding elements of play into our learning design should be enough to boost its fun factor. Here are a few suggestions. 

1. Interactive stories 
Interactive stories focus less on telling and more on letting the learners become part of the story. This is similar to solitary or solo play where learners can explore the story and engage with it on their own. 

2. Story questions
In relation to solo play and role-playing or simulation, asking questions allows learners’ minds to “shift gears” from facts (semantic memory) to episodes (episodic memory) to “My Story” (autobiographical memory). This process makes learning both desirable and relevant because now they’re personally involved - inserting their own experiences into the story.

3. Episodic Learning 
In the vein of telenovelas and reality series, Episodic Learning or Thematic Learning allows trainers to go in-depth and spur learners to reflect, and openly discuss and think about the possibilities resulting from one scenario.

4. Hands on project
In our Story-Based eLearning Design Online Workshop, participants get their “hands dirty” with their own mini projects. This is a great way to engage learners, make the workshop more fun and challenging, and is an avenue for discussion and feedback. For mini projects and other hands on projects to work, it’s important for participants to finish them. This will provide learners a sense of accomplishment, excitement, and satisfaction. 

5. Exploration bonus
Allow learners to explore. Provide activities and assignments that encourage them to learn on their own. Motivate them by giving an exploration bonus, which is a reward handed out to those who explore or try something new. The concept is common in the gaming industry but can also be found in the evolution theory. This can be useful in coaxing learners to step out of their comfort zones.

6. ‘Get Together’ for Discussion
After letting learners explore on their own, it’s important to bring them together as a group or into multiple groups to share ideas, be inspired by other participants, and build relationships. These social “get togethers” should be fun and of a community-building nature.

7. Team building
At its core, team building should be able to combine the strengths of each participant in such a way that it optimizes everyone’s learning. For instance, letting participants answer questions posted during a workshop allows them to share their responses which are molded by their own unique experiences and background. Their answers, in turn, add to the entire group’s shared knowledge.


There are various ways to incorporate play into learning design. At the root of all these is the belief that play and learning go hand in hand.

What other ways can trainers and designers apply play in learning? Let me know your comments.


Brown, Stuart. Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. Avery, 2009

Kuschner, David. Book Review of Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. American Journal of Play, Volume 2, Number 3. Winter 2010 

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. The Importance of Play for Adults. PsychCentral. 2012/11/15

Brown, Stuart. Play is More than Fun., 2009

Barbakoff, Audrey. Learning Through Play in Adult Programs. RA News, August 2014

Tip #39 - Employing Story Structure and Dynamics to Engage Different Learners

Tip #28 - Create Memorable Story-based Test Questions

Tip #57 - Episodic Learning

Story-Based eLearning Design Online Workshop 

Tom Stafford (June 19, 2012). "Why are We Curious?". BBC

Ingrid Chalufour, Walter F. Drew, and Sandi Waite-Stupiansky. Learning to Play Again: A Constructivist Workshop for Adults. Beyond the Journal, Young Children on the Web, May 2003

Terhi Kouvo. Building Harmony Live & Learn - Stories of adult learning. 22.06.2016

Ray Jimenez, PhD
Vignettes Learning
"Helping Learners Learn Their Way"

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