Purposeful Play is Paramount for Productivity

“Playrooms and games, animals and plants, wood and nails must take their place side-by-side with books and words.” - Angelo Patri

One of my favorite things to do is watch my one-year-old play.  In fact, I watch him play every day.  I am fortunate that I work at a school that offers on-site daycare for its faculty and staff members.  Sometimes I will sneak a peek through the window as I walk by the classroom and see my son, Declan laughing, smiling, and playing.  I have noticed that sometimes he is playing by himself, whereas other times he is playing with his friends. I even get updates with photos and videos that highlight the different activities they do everyday. 

And when we get home from school, the first thing we do is head straight to the playroom. This is where he will typically eat a snack, and is accompanied by our two Labs, Sadie and Madison—who both equally love his snacks. Then he will grab different items from the toy chest and begin to play. Sometimes he likes to play by himself, and other times he likes to play with his mom and me. His favorite toys right now are cars, stacking cups, and his xylophone, as well as any type of ball.

I find it so fascinating how quickly he is able to learn by playing.  Sometimes I will just observe him play—pressing random buttons, figuring out how to operate a toy, or making piles by taking toys out of a basket, and putting them all back in.  I love seeing the progress that he is able to make.  For example, when he first started playing with blocks, he used to pick them up, drop them, or throw them.  Recently he has figured out that he can stack them, and is currently able to stack up to six at a time.  

He also loves dumping markers out of the box and trying to put them all back in.  At first, he used to get really frustrated when he couldn't put the markers back in.  Then after a few days he was able to put one marker back in the box.  By the end of the week, he was able to put all of the markers back in the box.  From there, he moved onto dumping out colored pencils and putting them back in the box.  This was a more difficult challenge for him because the colored pencils were thinner and the box was smaller, but he loved the challenge and was able to eventually put them all back in the box. 

As I reflected on this, I realized that sometimes I showed him how to play with toys, and other times he would either play with them in a way that either was unconventional, or he would figure out how to play with them in the way they were designed to be used.  I began thinking about these two different styles of learning—scaffolded support from an adult (watch and learn), or discovery by investigation (trial and error).  I remember this one time when I showed Declan how to blow air into a harmonica.  This was an example using the "watch and learn" method by showing him how to use a particular item correctly.  On the other hand, I also remember getting him a new toy that had lots of different buttons and I decided to let him use the "trial and error" method to independently figure out how to use it.

When I thought about this some more, I realized that regardless of the method we used, we were still playing.  There was no right or wrong way to use these different toys.  There was no end goal in mind.  The only intended outcome was to learn, one way or another.  In fact, research shows that play is a highly effective strategy for students in primary years to make appropriate developmental growth in areas such as creativity, imagination, problem-solving, interpersonal skills, and self-confidence. 

More specifically, there are two types of play—structured and unstructured.  Structured play is when an adult provides directions, or a child follows a set of rules [1].  Some examples of structured play might include board games, organized sports, or puzzles.  Unstructured play is when there is no direction and a child can do what interests them [1]. Some examples of unstructured play might be building with blocks, pretending to be a book character, or freely playing with toys.  According to the Pathways Organization, "The key is to find a balance between the types of play. Toddlers should spend at least 1 hour a day in free, unstructured play, and at least 30 minutes engaged in adult-led, structured play" [1].

Another type of play that is important for kids to learn is independent play.  Independent play is when children play by themselves with a parent nearby [2].  It is important for a parent to be nearby so that they first make sure the child is safe, and also to make observations on how the child plays.  Does the child just sit there, cry, crawl or walk away? Or, does the child engage with toys, talk and make noises, or smile and laugh? Just like unstructured play, providing a child with intentional, independent play can be highly effective for appropriate developmental growth.  

Play in Highly Effective Primary Schools

The best primary schools have an appropriate balance of different types of play throughout the school day.  Teachers at these schools understand that intentional play is needed in order for students to build necessary skills that are associated with each type of play.  Structured play allows for students to learn how to play within boundaries such as rules, expectations, and guidelines, whereas unstructured play allows students to build skills resourcefulness, inventiveness, and imagination.  Both types of play require students to practice their social problem-solving skills, whereas independent play provides students the opportunity to learn how to entertain themselves and solve problems individually.

In her research on play in early childhood education, Erika Christakis author of The Importance of Being Little found that “Quality preschool teachers are intentional about everything they do: the classroom routines, the physical environment, the schedule, the types of materials they make available for children to explore and manipulate" [3]. She goes on to tell us that it is extremely important for preschool teachers to use observation and reflection in an inquiry-based culture, and modify their students' learning environments to take advantage of their natural curiosity [3].  

When preschool teachers prioritize play, they intentionally plan activities for students—often in the form of learning centers—where they can flourish as learners.  If you were to walk into a highly effective preschool classroom, you might see teachers performing any of the following roles:

  • Preparing purposeful learning environments and materials

  • Supporting students by asking questions, or scaffolding their independent learning task

  • Conducting informal assessments by observing children playing

During these learning activities, you would likely see teachers on the floor with their students.  This is because it can be helpful for teachers to view their environment from a child's point of view, as well as helping to build trust and rapport with the students.  Trust me, it is never lost on preschool teachers that their students only get a small amount of time to be a kid, and they fully take advantage of this time by facilitating purposeful play. 

Extending Play at Home

There are strategies that are used in a preschool classroom that can be particularly effective at home.  While children probably won't be able to learn skills in small groups like they can at school, there are things that parents can do to help facilitate and extend play at home.  

It is often recommended that parents provide versatile materials that their child can use to play with—recycled items, scraps from arts and crafts and cardboard boxes.  This allows the child to use their imagination and creativity as they play.  Parents should also ask their child open-ended questions to supplement playtime.  Here are a few examples of questions that teachers ask in the classroom that parents can use at home:

  • How might we add on to this?

  • What else could you create with these materials?

  • How could you use these materials to play something new?

By asking these types of questions, you are encouraging children to play for a longer period of time, as well as prompting them to think about how to use the materials in different ways.  This can serve as a great opportunity to connect with your child, as well as extending purposeful play at home.

Play in the Workplace

There is evidence to suggest that play—exploration, tinkering, imagination, and creativity—is becoming increasingly valuable to the workplace.  Pat Kane, author of, The Play Ethic claims that "Play will be to the 21st century what work was to the last 300 years of industrial society—our dominant way of knowing, doing and creating value" [4].  As an example, many tech companies like Google adopted the 20 percent time rule which allows its engineers to dedicate 20 percent of their time at work to an independent side project.  Engineers could use their own imagination and creativity to come up with a product, or a solution to a problem that somehow benefits the company.  

Some of Google's most notable projects that came out of this 20 percent time were Gmail,  AdSense, and Google News.  Even though Google is likely known for this idea, it was not the first company to implement it.  There are many companies that have used this idea in lots of different ways in order to benefit their organization.  You can learn more about how the concept of 20 percent time made its way into education with the 20time Project in this post.

New research also suggests that we need more creative individuals in the workplace who embrace the concept of play.  In his book, A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink distinguishes the difference between work and play when he writes, "Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do" [5].  Therefore, if we are able to create more work experiences that provide opportunities for autonomy and freedom—things that we are not required to do—then we are essentially engaging in play.  

What's more, Pink also tells us that "People rarely succeed at anything unless they are having fun doing it" [5]. If you think about it, most employees are probably happier and more productive when they are having fun at work.  It's like the old saying goes, "If you love what you do you will never have to work a day in your life."  Therefore, it makes sense that the workplace has shifted to recruiting creative people who take their work seriously—without taking themselves too seriously—as well as finding innovative ways to integrate purposeful play to promote productivity.

Bridging the Gap Between Work and School

In the fall of 2011, Mitch Resnick, creator of the computer programming platform, Scratch shared a thought-provoking idea that he had at while working at the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T). His idea was that "schools should be on the edge of chaos" with regard to how students learn [6].  He explained that he was inspired by the process in which kindergartners learn and he wanted to lead a team of individuals who would be dedicated to create technology tools that engaged people—particularly children—in creative learning experiences that traditionally exist in kindergarten.  

So, he decided to create the Lifelong Kindergarten group to "... develop new technologies that, in the spirit of the blocks and finger paint of kindergarten, expand the range of what people can design, create, and learn—thus sowing the seeds for a more creative society" [6].  He also shared that his goal for this group was to " ... help children learn to think creatively, reason systematically, work collaboratively, and learn continuously—skills for success in the 21st century" [6].  Resnick was able to achieve his goal, because Scratch quickly became—and is still—the most popular programming language for students today. And the best part about it is that his team had a lot of fun getting there.

Now that we know play is becoming more and more important in the workplace, I believe that we need to find creative ways to intentionally integrate play into our classrooms.  Learning should be fun. Learning should be messy. Learning should be exciting. And learning should be imaginative. When we play, we should try to find joy in our accomplishments, just as we should be able to laugh and celebrate our mistakes. Put simply, we should embrace the lifelong kindergarten mentality by attempting to make school work seem more like play for our students.

Integrating Purposeful Play into the Classroom

Sir Ken Robinson once said that school kills creativity.  I personally don't think that schools kill creativity, but I do believe that the amount of learning tasks that require the use of creativity generally decreases as students increase in age.  If we look at Figure 1, we can see this concept visually represented as a line graph that depicts an inverse relationship between student age and their use of creativity.  In other words, as student age increases, creativity in school decreases.  Of course in reality there isn't a perfect linear regression that actually occurs in schools like the graph portrays, but it does help to illustrate the point that we need to create more opportunities for play and creativity in our elementary and secondary classrooms. 

Figure 1: Creativity Use in Schools as Children Age

What if we were to take the idea of play in preschool and apply it to our instruction in elementary school, middle school, and high school?  What if we were able to afford students of all ages the same type of playful learning environment that they might experience in preschool?  What might that look like?  How might we do this? 

I am proposing that we can intentionally find opportunities for purposeful play in our curriculum by integrating these three types of learning activities: investigation and exploration, making, tinkering, and engineering, and of course, games.

Investigation and Exploration

Here is a little trick that works every time.  Whenever I introduce a new technology tool to my students—or teachers in a professional development setting—I let them have ten minutes of "sandbox" time.  Sandbox time is when I allow my students to have independent, unstructured playtime with the new tool—just as children might play in a sandbox.  This provides them with the opportunity to explore an app, an online program, or a new device by themselves.  It's like opening a present on Christmas morning.

I have found this strategy to be highly effective for two reasons.  For one, they get to play around with the tool to begin figuring out how to use the different features on their own.  This significantly reduces the amount of questions I get about how to use the tool.  And two, it allows them to get their curiosity needs met.  So when it comes time for me to provide them with direct instruction on specific ways to use the tool for a learning task, they pay more attention, and aren't distracted by all of the dazzling features. 

In addition to technology, this strategy can also be applied when introducing new units of content. Rather than explicitly sharing your essential questions, enduring understandings, and learning targets to your students at the beginning of a unit, consider providing them with just the topic.  For example, if you are a social studies teacher and you are planning a unit on World War II, think about using a prompt—an image, video, propaganda, quote, statement, or artifact—in order to pique your students' interest on the topic.  This allows students to become curious, ask questions, and investigate the subject matter. 

This same idea can be applied to science lessons.  We don't want to tell students the outcome that they should expect to see in an experiment, and then ask them to perform the experiment to confirm the results. This strips away all of the inquiry.  Instead, consider providing them with the lesson topic and strategically remove parts of the scientific method—such as the question and the step-by-step instructions—so that they engage in productive struggle to come up with an experiment on their own.

For example, if you are teaching a lesson on buoyancy and you want your students to learn about boat construction, provide them with the necessary materials to create miniature boats to be placed in a container of water.  This allows students to look at the materials, come up with a question, create a hypothesis, and carry out the experiment to reach their own conclusions.

When we provide students with the information that they are expected to learn right from the get-go, their curiosity shuts down and they naturally become less interested.  It's like someone spoiling the ending of a book by telling you how it ends, and then asking you to read the book anyway.  You ultimately want your students to learn the content, but they will be more likely to remember the information if they are able to discover it on their own. 

Making and Tinkering

When students engage in making, tinkering, or building they don't just make things—they make memories.  And these memories help students to construct their own knowledge in the process.  I agree with Martinez and Stager (2013) when they write in their book, Invent to Learn that children should engage in tinkering and making because they are powerful ways to learn [7].  

Not only are tinkering and making powerful ways to learn, they also help children to build self-confidence.  Martinez and Stager add, “When we allow children to experiment, take risks, and play with their own ideas, we give them permission to trust themselves.  They begin to see themselves as learners who have good ideas and can transform their own ideas into reality" [7].  Therefore, if we continue to provide opportunities for our students to combine play and learning as they progress through school, then they will become even more confident in their abilities.

According to Martinez and Stager, “Making is about the active role construction plays in learning.  The maker has a product in mind when working with tools and materials" [7].  Making can range from students using LEGOs to build a desired structure, to creating a video production to communicate a powerful message. It doesn't matter what materials or tools students use.  What does matter is the process that students use to make their product.  

One of my favorite tools to use in the classroom is the Scratch platform that I mentioned earlier in this section.  What I love about Scratch is that students can begin using it as early as kindergarten—with ScratchJr—all the way through high school.  Scratch provides a digital playground for students that allows them to practice their critical and logical thinking skills by using a block-based computer programming language to create a project.  Students can integrate characters called sprites, different backgrounds, variables, and functions in order to create a digital story, a game, or anything else they can imagine. What's more, students can use scratch as a tool to demonstrate their learning and understanding in any subject area.  

I also try to provide my students with consumable materials that they can use to construct a work of art to showcase their learning.  For example, my students have made model houses, sculptures that represent their identity, and drawings that illustrate themes in a lesson.  I have even provided my students with opportunities to create an invention using physical or digital materials that solves a problem.  Again, what matters most is that students engage in the process of making in order to build knowledge, skills, and confidence. 

Switching gears to engineering, tinkering is another way that students can create a sense of play while learning.  To reference Martinez and Stager yet again, they define tinkering as a mindset, "... a playful way to approach and solve problems through direct experience, experimentation, and discovery" [7].  When students tinker, they attempt to improve or repair something by playing around with different components and tools.  This can include assembling toys together, inspecting a manufactured item, or even taking an object apart. 

To intentionally engage my students in tinkering, I will often allow them to participate in a reverse engineering activity.  I will arrange my students into small groups and place an object in the middle of a table such as a mechanical pen, a battery-operated toy, or part of a computer.  The goal is for students to disassemble the object to learn how it works.  I will typically provide tools such as screwdrivers and needle nose pliers to help them with this process.  Then, I challenge them to see if they can reassemble the object to put it back together.  This provides students with the opportunity to play and practice with different materials so that they can construct their own knowledge on mechanics and electricity. 

If you find that reverse engineering isn't something you find applicable in your own classroom, consider getting creative by allowing your students to tinker with numbers and words.  In a math class, consider providing an equation to students and ask them to make changes to the equation so that it still equates to the same value.  Or in a language arts class, consider providing students with a paragraph and ask them to experiment adding or removing words so that the overall message still stays the same.  In both cases, students will be able to play around with mathematics or linguistics in order to improve or recreate something.


Believe it or not, games can be used to teach and assess 21st century skills, in addition to content knowledge.  If you think about it, games require skills such as communication, collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving.  Because of this, many teachers have started to support game-based learning in the classroom.  This is likely because games can be a fun and engaging way to learn and remember information.  

Referring back to Daniel Pink, he has found that "For a generation of people, games have become a tool for solving problems as well as a vehicle for self-expression and self-exploration" [5].  For example, the game Catch Phrase—a word guessing party game—requires communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking.  Players look at a phrase and try to get their teammates to guess the provided phrase by giving clues in the form of gestures, words, unique memories, and other creative strategies before the time runs out.  This game is so fun because it allows players to achieve a common goal while being silly and playful with friends, family, or colleagues. 

Teachers can integrate the idea of Catch Phrase into their classes by creating custom phrases that relate to a particular unit of study.  This can double as a way to help students review curricular content, while also practicing using skills that will help them to prepare for success in the workplace. 

Integrating games into the classroom can help motivate students to learn, and foster 21st century skills at the same time.  Consider recreating other similar games in the classroom such as Pictionary, Taboo, Scategories, or Charades.  Each of these games require students to think critically and creatively, use some method of communication, and rely on teamwork and collaboration. Better yet, I encourage you to have your students recreate these games for each other to use as a review activity.  This way students have to think about vocabulary words and topics that are applicable to the lesson.  They could even create other types of games such as their own board games or card games that would accomplish the same goal.

What's more, the concept of gamification has also made its way into schools.  Gamification is a method of instruction that uses the elements of video games to motivate students to learn.  Some of these video game elements include reward systems such as earning badges, collecting points or stars that unlock additional features, as well as other elements such as competition among players, and increasing the level of difficulty as students progress through different stages.  

We often see gamification in apps and online tools specifically centered around subjects in math and language arts.  This type of learning program is so effective in these content areas, because they require foundational knowledge and skills to be mastered before students can advance in curriculum. Because of this, these gamified applications provide an individualized learning experience for students by integrating artificial intelligence software that adapts to student responses in real time.  Over the years, tech companies have discovered that this method of instruction is highly effective—and more importantly—schools are willing to pay thousands of dollars to get them into the hands of their students. 

Due to the rise of these digital learning programs, teachers have even started applying gamification to their behavior management strategies.  Some teachers use online tools that integrate a digital, positive behavior reward system such as Class Dojo. Whereas, other teachers create their own unique reward system based video game mechanics of collecting individual or class points to earn a party or some other type or prize.  For the record, I personally value intrinsic motivation over extrinsic motivation. But if this is what it takes to get students motivated to learn these days, then I say go for it.

So, how does playing games transition into success in the workplace?  In a conversation with a game-industry recruiter, Pink tells us that "The ideal hire is someone who can bridge that left brain-right brain divide. Companies resist segregating the disciplines of art, programming, math and cognitive psychology and instead look for those who can piece together patches of many disciplines and weave them together into a larger tapestry" [5].  In other words, students who master these 21st century skills of communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity—who can conceptualize, synthesize, and apply information—will ultimately be more prepared for success in their career of choice.

Play Around with These Ideas

We know that play is a powerful way to learn at an early age.  But we learned that play is also paramount to developing the necessary skills to be successful and productive in our world today.  We saw how investigation and exploration can be intentionally integrated into the classroom to allow for curiosity and inquiry.  We identified ways in which students can make and tinker with materials, numbers, words, and ideas to construct critical knowledge and skills.  And we gathered new information on how to get students motivated to learn by strategically using game-based learning methods. 

I challenge you to play around with these ideas to see if you might be able to implement these strategies and concepts into your own classroom.  Think about how you could promote purposeful play in your lessons so that students can learn by doing, and have fun while doing it.


  1. “Parents' Guide to Structured vs Unstructured Play.” Pathways.org, Pathways.org, 3 Nov. 2020, https://pathways.org/watch/parents-guide-structured-vs-unstructured-play/#:~:text=Structured%20play%3A%20A%20child%20follows,%2C%20exploring%20the%20outdoors%2C%20etc.
  2. “The Importance of Independent Play.” PA Promise for Children, https://papromiseforchildren.com/featured-articles/the-importance-of-independent-play/#:~:text=Independent%20play%20is%20when%20children,can%20engage%20in%20independent%20play.
  3. Kaplan, Emily. “What's Lost When We Rush Kids through Childhood.” Edutopia, George Lucas Educational Foundation, 23 Aug. 2019, https://www.edutopia.org/article/whats-lost-when-we-rush-kids-through-childhood.
  4. Kane, Pat. The Play Ethic: A Manifesto for a Different Way of Living. Pan, 2017.
  5. Pink, D. (2005). A whole new mind: Moving from the information age to the conceptual age. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.
  6. Barseghian, Tina. “A Case for Lifelong Kindergarten.” KQED, 26 Sept. 2011, https://www.kqed.org/mindshift/15573/a-case-for-lifelong-kindergarten.
  7. Martinez, S. L., & Stager, G. (2013). Invent to learn: Making, tinkering, and engineering in the classroom. Torrance, CA: Constructing Modern Knowledge Press.