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Gaming the System: Finding Ways to Make Learning Playful

Think back to your own school days, and try to determine why certain lessons or experiences stick with you. I vividly remember my excitement for my 9th grade Model UN project—the challenge of going up against my classmates in a role-playing exercise that would be a large part of my final grade, and the responsibility I felt representing my assigned country. These factors motivated me to dive in my studies to become a South Korea expert. To illustrate just how monumental this learning experience was, when I ran into a former classmate years later as we picked our kids up from school, neither of us could remember the other’s name but we knew the countries we represented 20 years earlier! This is what we want to create for Quest Forward Learning students: an engaging and playful learning experience that sticks.  

Though playfulness in itself seems to have an organic quality, creating playful learning experiences does not come naturally. Research can guide our pursuit of creating playful learning experiences for students. What does it mean for an experience to be playful? Scot Osterweil, the Creative Director of MIT’s Education Arcade, believes that learning experiences become playful when the learner is untethered by specific limitations. MIT’s Education Arcade developed the theory of four freedoms of play related to learning that empower the learner through an engaging and interactive experience. The four freedoms are: freedom to experiment, freedom to fail, freedom to try out identities, and freedom of effort. These grant the student the opportunity to make important choices related to their educational experience (Osterweil, 2018).

The Harvard Graduate School of Education Pedagogy of Playfulness (PoP) Project examined the components that constitute a playful learning experience. Outcomes of their research include a “playbook” and tools that show what a playful learning experience should feel like. They identify three essential components of playful learning: choice, wonder, and delight. Beyond describing how playful learning feels, Harvard’s PoP playbook outlines what playful learning looks like in action:

  • Choice relates to the student’s feelings of ownership over the experience and their level of self-motivation. Choice happens in learning when students set goals, develop and share ideas, make and change rules, negotiate challenges, and make decisions about collaborators and roles (how long they will work, and when they will move around).
  • Wonder is related to student engagement and their level of curiosity and fascination with the experiment. Wonder is at play when students improvise or explore, create or invent, pretend or imagine, and take risks or learn from trial and error. Playing with materials, ideas, perspectives, music, symbols, words, languages, stories, movement, and other modes of expression also evokes a sense of wonder.
  • Delight relates to a student’s sense of satisfaction, enjoyment, belonging, excitement, or pride within the learning experience. Delight takes place when students smile, laugh, joke, or act silly. Delight may also be seen in playful competition, celebration, or engaging in an altruistic act (“PoP Playbook,” 2018).

Another way to think about playful learning is to consider what makes certain games so engaging. Much research has been done to explore the connection between the design of good games and engaging learning experiences. Thomas Malone, a former research scientist at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, explored how the same design elements that contribute to making computer games enjoyable apply to make learning fun. He suggested that three factors can be applied to assess motivation in instructional environments: challenge, fantasy, and curiosity (Malone, 1981). The University of Miami Professor and Instructional Design and Program Coordinator Michelle Dickey was another who explored the links between playful learning and good game mechanics. She credits game designers for developing innovative techniques for interactive design that have a significant application to the educational setting: focused goals, challenging tasks, protection from adverse consequences for initial failures, affirmation of performance, affiliation with others, novelty and variety, and choice (Dickey, 2005).

More recently, a group of researchers from Ulster University Derry in Northern Ireland, explored how game mechanics involved with “Serious Games” (games that are designed for the purposes to do more than just entertain, mimic learning mechanics.

I see now that the fun I had in the Model UN project was not a fluke. My teacher, who appeared to be sitting back and watching the action unfold, had carefully orchestrated a playful learning experience. As we strive to create playful learning experiences for Quest Forward Learning students, it is important to remember that playfulness in the classroom does not occur by accident. Quests and activities should be centered around choice, wonder, and delight in order to give students the freedoms necessary to enjoy a playful game-like learning experience.


Callaghan, M. J., McShane, N., Eguiluz, A. G., Teilles, T., & Raspail, P. (2016, February). Practical Application of the Learning Mechanics-Game Mechanics (LM-GM) framework for Serious Games analysis in engineering education. In Remote Engineering and Virtual Instrumentation (REV), 2016 13th International Conference on (pp. 391-395). IEEE.

Dickey, M. D. (2005). Engaging by design: How engagement strategies in popular computer and video games can inform instructional design. Educational Technology Research and Development,53(2), 67-83. doi:10.1007/bf02504866

The 4 Freedoms of Play & Learning http://playfullearning.com/4freedoms/***Scot Osterweil video – The 4 Freedoms of Learning https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-66lm9T4bNk

Malone, T. W. (1982). Heuristics for designing enjoyable user interfaces. Proceedings of the 1982 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems – CHI 82. doi:10.1145/800049.801756

PoP Playbook [Scholarly project]. (2018). In PoP Playbook. Retrieved January 6, 2019, from
http://www.pz.harvard.edu/sites/default/files/PoP Playbook.pdf

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