Play-based teaching

Tips and Tricks for Play-Based Learning in Secondary School

Play-based learning is, in a nut-shell, to learn while playing. In secondary school contexts, the notion of play is often dropped because secondary school, for many, is when learning for fun goes out the window and learning to meet key assessment criteria (NCEA) becomes the primary driver for curriculum design. How can play be used in a secondary classroom? As it turns out – quite easily and playfully.

The context

I am a secondary teacher who has been playing with gamification and agency in teaching and learning. I have designed my curriculum delivery (Visual Arts, Digital Technology, English and Social Studies) primarily around student agency and play. Utilising some gamification strategies, agile systems and digital tools and formally setting aside 1 lesson out of 4 for a play-based learning experience has produced some intriguing and encouraging results.

Starting out.

In my senior Art classroom (multi-level/mixed subject areas) I have invited play by giving students a prompt for a play-based lesson. Labelled as a ‘Fun Friday’ activity, I give each student a new artist model (Visarts context) that they ideally haven’t seen before. I then give them a timed condition (gamification strategy) and minimum guidance ‘You might need a tripod’ or ‘the hairdryer could be useful today’ and let them go for it. Some students choose to team up, others choose to go it alone and then ten minutes before the end of the lesson we check back in and share what we learned. When students ‘fail’ to achieve what they set out to do, we discuss different strategies for how it might work better next time and practise computational thinking strategies to ‘debug’ processes. Oftentimes the failed product ignites a new experiment to play with the following week or encourages students to design their own prompt for the following week. The students have full agency in their interpretation of each challenge (no rules!) and when a public holiday falls on a Friday (meaning that they won’t get to do their play lesson), the students often ask if we can do it on another day because they enjoy it so much. It has been a really fun inquiry.

Examples: Provide artist model or example – see if you can do something like this, Provide a new tool – see what you can do with it (tech, provide a word or concept – see what you can make to represent it (doodle guru challenge).

On exploring

When I have needed to teach students digital skills (Photoshop processes for example), I always have the option of sharing my screen or recording the process and sharing the process that I use to achieve desired effects. This would be teacher-centred and involve passive participation on behalf of my students. This also implies that there is ‘one way’ to complete the task and that my way is the right way. If I switch my strategy and share the outcome and let them figure out how to use the tool – it is much more playful. Students are more likely to retain their learning through experimentation and they can work together to share their learning to work towards a common goal. (Social constructivism) By focussing on the process rather than the product, students have more ownership of their learning and they also feel more confident to try and fail on their own before arriving at a solution.

“Children’s play has been described as freely chosen, actively engaging, opportunistic, pleasurable, creative, and concerned more with means than ends” (Ashiabi, 2007; Sturgess, 2003). Although I give them a ‘prompt’ as a starting tool, the focus on each play-based lesson is on the process of learning and not on the finished product. The students are able to interpret the source in their own way and come up with their own unique (and fun) solutions.

On playing dumb

For play-based learning to thrive in a secondary context we need to play alongside the students. One way for teachers to enhance the learning in a play-based classroom is by not having all of the answers on hand. When students ask me, “How do I…” I reply with, “I don’t know. What happens when…” and we experiment together. “By playing the role of commenters, coplayers, questioners, or demonstrators of new ways to interact with the materials involved” (Tsao, 2008). One of the most exciting outcomes about the play-based learning environment is that now I have the confidence as the teacher to give students opportunities to try things that I do not know how to do either. I do not need to be the ‘sage on the stage’ or the ‘vessel of knowledge’ because I can model how to problem solve and reflect on trials and tribulations with the students. The low-stakes play environment means that I can play with new materials, techniques, and processes alongside the students – and we can all have fun learning together.

On Risk Taking

Providing students with new learning experiences that are not directly aligned with ‘high stakes’ assessment means that students can feel more confident to take risks. Further, by taking risks – they are learning that failure can be fun and one step closer to achieving a desired result. Instead of feeling disheartened when things go wrong, students can feel that they have still learned a new skill – or even what not to do when it comes to more high stakes assessment contexts (building both resilience and confidence) In reporting back at the end of our ‘play time’ students have shown more confidence in their ability to experiment and articulate what worked and did not work. They have also increased their ability to articulate their thinking. The risk-taking of a play-based learning experience invites deep conversations around metacognition and problem solving that might not be presented if not within the context of play.

On Independence

Teachers can easily hijack play experiences (Gooch, 2008) by stepping in and showing students how to do something. If we step in to take control of learning experiences, we are stripping the students of an opportunity to construct knowledge in an authentic hands-on learning context. Independence, self-regulation and problem-solving are key outcomes of play-based learning in early childhood and in secondary school the results can be no different. If we want students to be self-regulating, confident life-long learners who can thrive in ever-changing environments – then offering play-based learning opportunities in secondary school contexts is key.

On Flow

Friday play lessons start quickly and always seem to end abruptly. I do ‘time calls’ to help students know that time is running out (you can also use a digital timer on a screen) but it is also true that on more than one occasion we have all been so immersed in ‘flow’ that we are still ‘playing’ long past the end of the lesson. “The sense of time becomes distorted” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975). As a quick measure of student engagement, the simple fact that time seems to go faster on a Fridays and that students often want to work beyond the bell is extremely promising.  

On agency

Providing a prompt for a student is offering guidance. It does not students to self-select a prompt although they can be agentic in how they interpret the inspiration. In order to offer more student agency, I have provided a grid of possible prompts that students can self-select from. At the beginning of the lesson, they tell me what they have chosen (we use a Kanban in class to track choices) and I have deliberately left some boxes on the gid blank to allow them to self-prompt once they develop more confidence. The blank boxes within a grid of other pre-designed prompts allows them to self-direct and choose from anything they would like to experiment with which offers them much more agency and fast-tracks them towards being lifelong learners who can choose what they want to learn and how they might use play and experimentation as a process to learn it.

On assessment

Educators are often concerned about meeting academic standards and assessments and play need not ‘steal’ time away from this. By focussing on skills acquisition and the importance of metacognition and learning how to learn, students are better able to interpret and meet assessment expectations. Many of the skills we have learned through play become an important back-pocket skill that students draw from later. Learning conversations in class often think back to play lessons as important reflection moments. ‘Remember when you were trying to shoot the toys and make the background blurry?’ or ‘remember when you found that tool that could copy things?’ The ‘remember when’ conversations are often easily remembered from fun lessons and students can return to their learning notes to re-find the technique or tool they need for their, (now high stakes), assessment. Play based learning is easier to recall because it is active, hands on and memorable.

Tips and Tricks

For every ‘passive student’ experience – think of how you can make it hands on, student-led and fun

Use computational thinking to break down your content into key concepts to explore through play

Add a timer to gamify the experience and a leader board if appropriate.

Encourage students to keep a learning log to record their thinking and exploration.

Use digital tools to capture learning as it happens (google drawing, flip grid, padlet).

Gather student voice to track how play is affecting their learning (google form, padlet, whiteboard).

Track your progress on a play-based learning continuum.

Dedicate a specific time in your curriculum design and timetable to play-based learning.

How do you think you will incorporate play-based learning into your programme?

Select references:

Bodrova, E., Germeroth, C., & Leong, D. J. (2013). Play and self-regulation: Lessons from Vygotsky. American Journal of Play, 6, 111-123.

Csikszentmihalyi, M.   Flow and Education – 1975

Goouch, K. (2008). Understanding playful pedagogies, play narratives and play spaces. Early Years, 28, 93-102.

Pyle A, Danniels E. A continuum of play-based learning: The role of the teacher in play-based pedagogy and the fear of hijacking play. Early Education and Development. 2017;28(3):274-289.



  1. Very nice post and references! All too often we as educators think that just by gamifying our lessons students will learn more, or learn better. But, there still has to be a choice: it ONLY is real play if their participation is voluntary, otherwise it is a task. Researchers have shown this too: “Motivation did not improve regardless of play context, suggesting serious games should be implemented for their learning content rather than because they are assumed to be motivating”. (Rodríguez-Aflecht G, Hannula-Sormunen M, McMullen J, Jaakkola T, Lehtinen E. Voluntary vs Compulsory Playing Contexts: Motivational, Cognitive, and Game Experience Effects. Simulation & Gaming. 2017;48(1):36-55. doi:10.1177/1046878116673679)

    For a long time I have liked this book: Koster, R. (2013). Theory of fun for game design. by O’Reilly Media, Inc.. It has several great ideas about game design, like “How to create games that do not have one right answer?” and how fun is just another word for learning.



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