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How To Make Project Based Learning More Playful

Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky was among the first people to identify the role of play in children’s learning and its link to creativity. Through his observation of young children, Vygotsky came to believe that the creative modifications children used during their play supported their psychological and cognitive development. 

Vygotsky identified two types of activities—reproductive and creative. Reproductive activities are those that are closely tied to memory. They involve repeating behaviors previously seen or practiced, and are crucial in building habits that can be repeated easily under a set of specific conditions. Creative, or recombinative, activities, by contrast, help build the skills to adapt in varying circumstances. If all human activity was limited to repetition, humans would be oriented in the past. Creative activities enable humans to be oriented toward the future and create the future by altering the present. 

Even the youngest children engage in these kinds of creative activities. When a little girl is pretending to be a mother, she is not just repeating what she has heard her mother say but is also coming up with new things when new situations arise in the pretend play. As Vygotsky explained, “A child’s play very often is just an echo of what he saw and heard adults do; nevertheless, these elements of his previous experience are never merely reproduced in play in exactly the way they occurred in reality. A child’s play is not simply a reproduction of what he has experienced, but a creative reworking of the impressions he has acquired.

More recent work echoes what Vygotsky discovered—that children learn through play. But not all kinds of play are the same; some lead to deeper creative learning, while others don’t. Mitchel Resnick, Professor and Director of the Lifelong Kindergarten group at MIT, uses the metaphor of playpen vs playground to differentiate the different kinds of play they support. A playpen is a restrictive environment where children have limited opportunities to explore, whereas a playground promotes open exploration, problem solving and creativity. 

Project Based Learning (PBL) is similar to meaningful play—it typically uses real-world scenarios and encourages exploration and deep learning in students. But how do we structure PBL so that it acts as a playground for students instead of a playpen? Here are three ways to add elements of play into PBL to promote deeper learning. 

Open Exploration

Research studies show that students learn best in a flexible environment that scaffolds exploration and inquiry. Guided exploration, when introduced in a supportive environment, has been found more effective in student learning than pure discovery. Here are a few ways to support student exploration in project based learning: 

  • Allocate time for exploration so students feel comfortable tinkering with different ideas and concepts, even if it doesn’t lead to anything.
  • Ask students to explain what they are thinking or building. Oftentimes when students start to articulate their ideas, they discover shortcomings they can subsequently fix and improve. 
  • Allocate time for iterations as well. There are some students who will find a solution and stick with it, but there are just as many who will decide to scrap their initial idea and work on something completely different. Giving those students the time and space to iterate can help them learn from their initial mistakes. 

Active Minds-On Learning

When students are both physically and cognitively engaged, they learn better. Just because a project lets students build something doesn’t necessarily mean it also encourages minds-on learning. Projects that give students the opportunity to explore different solutions are better in that respect. However, it is also important to give students the right cognitive tools to solve the problem. For example, if students are trying to find a creative solution, teaching them what a creative solution means, and giving them techniques to come up with creative ideas like associative thinking or challenging assumptions, can help in both scaffolding and active learning. 

Social Interaction

Most forms of play are also social, and children learn not just from their own exploration but also from watching and interacting with their peers. Social interactions allow students to bounce their ideas off of each other, take elements from others to use in their solution, or simply learn about other areas from their peers. 

A Stanford study found that social cues that create a feeling of working together can significantly increase intrinsic motivation, even when students are working on different projects. As the researchers explained, “... cues of working together turn work into play, leading people to become more interested in challenging tasks and thus to persist longer on them, to enjoy them more, to require less self-regulatory effort to persist on them, and to become more absorbed in, to perform better on, and to choose to complete more of these tasks.

One way to increase healthy social interactions is to teach students how to critique others’ ideas and allow them to suggest constructive improvements to other projects. When done well, this builds both social cohesiveness as well as critical thinking. 

Vygotsky believed that play and creativity are natural to all human beings, and are essential to our learning process. By adding elements of play into project based learning, we can make project based learning more effective and engaging. 

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