Everybody plays differently — use this to help them learn
Play and learning are intimately connected. For some — including those who’ve looked at the studies — this is obvious, but for many adults, this seems counterintuitive: play is for kids. It seems somehow frivolous to bring play into adult work and learning. If we follow this rabbit-hole to the bottom, we get dry lectures and rote. And there’s plenty of evidence that lecture-based rote learning is far from the best way to learn.
But play doesn’t need to be childish. In a broad sense, play is a state of events where we don't make for the goal of the activity in the most obvious and direct sense. Instead, we play around with the elements of the situation, rearranging things, making and breaking rules, and using our imaginations. Thinking this way, it's no stretch to say that without play, the human race would be poorer to the tune of most of our cultural development, scientific discoveries and artistic achievements.
We resist play because we’re scared to fail
As adults, we’re often scared to play because of the judgements of our peers. In his TED Talk, Tim Brown gives a great example where he contrasts the responses of adults and children when told to draw their neighbour in an audience. The adults apologise for their rendering; the kids don’t. The adults are trying to achieve a good result, first time; the kids are just playing.
But play allows us to experiment, and to fail, and this is absolutely vital to learning. As adults we don’t want to fail. When we’re in business, we have targets to achieve. Learning needs to prove its worth and justify its time. Grades need to be achieved, investments returned on. We often create learning objectives, and then look for the most direct way to achieve them. The result is learning that’s overly serious, and that doesn’t allow for play.
Play personality styles can inspire playful learning design
Many learning professionals don’t really know where to start in creating fun, playful learning. We can’t just buy some play or some fun on Amazon. A great place to look for inspiration is Stuart Brown’s Play Personality Styles. Founder of the US National Institute for Play, Brown identifies eight styles of play, each of which appeals to some people more than others.
These styles are interesting as a source of personal insight. If you identify with one or more of the styles, you can use that to bring more of a sense of play into any part of your life. But learning professionals can use the styles as inspiration to find ways to add play to learning.
This is the first style many think of when they think about play. Those who prefer this style like to laugh and play the fool. They embrace the silly and boisterous, and don’t take things too seriously. This is often a high-energy play style.
In learning, appeal to this style by giving space and opportunity for jokes. It’s hard to script this kind of fun, but you can provide the tools for it. Games like Cards Against Humanity show how prompts can be used to allow people to create their own jokes. Encourage people to express themselves, for example in creating logos, team names, avatars, drawings, and other areas of learning ‘work’. Give people the space to indulge this side of their play personality.
The advantage of the eight styles, though, is that they go far beyond the obvious. The Kinesthete likes to move around, playing with movement, their body, and space. They may enjoy active sports, yoga, dancing or kinetic games, but mainly for the joy of movement, more than for winning or competing.
These people are restless in a static environment. It may not seem immediately obvious how to get people moving and using their bodies and space with some learning topics, but: embrace the space we’re working in. Get them moving around to different stations around the room, or into different groups, or move the focus from a slideshow to the person themselves and what they’re doing.
The Explorer loves to play by checking things out. In games, they will want to explore the whole map. They’re motivated by a sense of uncovering new things and finding the unexpected. Exploration can be physical, mental or emotional, but it must be about finding the new.
This is one of the easier styles to work into learning. Make it clear that there is a territory to be uncovered, and build a sense of mystery about what may lie in it. Help them feel a sense of progress as they work through the paths and areas, seeing how far they’ve come but also how much is still left unexplored.
This is a straightforward style in many ways. Competitors get a buzz from competing. Some compete more seriously than others, but they’ll enjoy seeing how their score compares with others, and being first to the goal, or at least striving for it.
Competition is so common that it does turn some people off, though, so make sure that it fits with the learning objectives. Competition among teams is often better than individual competition. And think carefully about what earns points or progress — reward the behaviours you want to encourage. If you use leaderboards, supply multiple fronts to compete on, or you may end up with a long procession towards an obvious coronation (like the second, less enjoyable half of a game of Monopoly).
Those who embrace this style love to organise, direct and orchestrate others in play. Directors in filmmaking are a great example. These players often have a vision, and arrange things to enact that vision.
Enable them in learning by creating opportunities for planning and organising stages in the learning. How will a group carry out a project? How will the team organise themselves? Give them the stage, the props and the set dressing — the tools and elements relevant to the learning situation — and allow them to make them shine.
Working toward completing sets of things and curating collections are the province of collectors. There’s a play in working out what sort of things go together, and what order to put them in, how to arrange them. That’s what this play style loves.
Give learners a set to work towards. Allow them to curate what they’ve learned — how would they arrange it for others? Allow them to make meaningful decisions about what to do next and how that fits with the learning they’ve already collected. Even thinking in that frame — of them collecting the pieces of learning — can help flavour the learning in a way this style will appreciate.
Artists love to create, to express themselves by making or building something new. It doesn’t have to be visual; anything that takes some building blocks and makes them into something new can exercise the creative parts of the brain that gives Artists satisfaction. They’re usually more focused on the process than the product.
This is one of the easiest styles to design for in learning experiences. Give them some rules and/or a goal, and some kind of elements or building blocks, that involve them using the learning, or learning as they go by trial and error.
Telling stories is a kind of play, too: thinking up new scenarios, characters and events, as well as the craft of telling a good story. Collaborative storytelling can also appeal to this play type. Imagination is their most treasured tool.
It’s fortunate for this style, in a learning context, that stories are how we make sense of the world. For them, move things away from the theoretical. Ground them in example, in story. But more, make them the centre of the story if you can. Give them the opportunity to make the theory into a story, or to weave it into their own story. Storytelling is a surprisingly powerful learning tool, and most people — of all play styles — respond well to being asked to take some ideas and make them into a story.