How Purposeful Play Opens the Door to Lifelong Learning

Student Engagement

How Purposeful Play Opens the Door to Lifelong Learning

from LEGO Education

By Wendy McMahon     Oct 24, 2022

How Purposeful Play Opens the Door to Lifelong Learning

In a fifth-grade class at Redlands Unified School District in California, students sit in pairs, building LEGO® Education robots that hop. They're laughing, chatting and (sometimes) getting a bit frustrated. They're also coding, measuring and problem-solving.

This is purposeful play. And right now, some district leaders and researchers say that's precisely what both students and teachers need.

Head of Education Impact at LEGO® Education, Dr. Jenny Nash, explains, "playful learning brings fun and enjoyment to learning for students, but it’s also about the educational standards. As educators, we're always thinking about the standards we need to cover, the knowledge and skills we want students to have and how we can provide a playful way to do that." And while learning through play isn't new, Nash notes that she's seeing more districts integrate LEGO Education solutions. It's an approach that works with younger and older students, incorporates STEAM learning and is backed by tremendous teacher support.

“For many teachers, purposeful play sounds great, and they know they should be adopting it, but many don’t know how or where to start,” says Nash. LEGO Education allows teachers to introduce playful learning to the classroom naturally—and in a way that builds confidence for both teachers and students. “Playful learning fits with what teachers are already doing," observes Nash.

LEGO Education designs standards-aligned sets for K-8 students and offers plenty of free support for teachers, including more than 400 online lesson plans—ranging in focus from computer science and English Language Arts (ELA) to robotics and coding—self-guided professional development and an online community where teachers share tips and ideas.

Why Teachers 💙 Adding Play to the Day

Olivia Davison, an elementary innovation teacher at Redlands Unified, says that using LEGO Education for purposeful play is a fast-growing trend with K-5 teachers and students in her district.

"After two years of remote learning and limited social interaction, it was hard for teachers to return to the classroom and want to stay there," says Davison. "They felt burned out. But when we gave them LEGO—something they could see their students enjoyed—many told us it helped reignite that fire."

LEGO® Education SPIKE™ Essential and SPIKE™ Prime sets were offered to interested teachers last year as part of a districtwide plan to provide every student with equitable access to coding, robotics and engineering instruction. In that first year, the number of teachers volunteering to use the LEGO Education sets with their classes grew from 20 to over 100.

"It's been exciting to see that growth," enthuses Davison. "That's over 3,000 students who used and learned with LEGO Education last year. And it's already growing even more. I love that we're helping so many teachers and students!"

Of course, Redlands Unified isn't alone in their belief in the power of play. This Brookings Institute report and these LEGO Foundation research projects, along with teacher experiences, tell us that play—specifically purposeful play—has a staggering list of benefits in the classroom. It also addresses some of the pain points teachers face today.

Building The Five Super Skills

Play helps build what Nash calls the five super skills that all kids need. These include physical, social, emotional, cognitive and creative skills, developed through collaboration, problem-solving, dealing with uncertainty, reasoning, curiosity and confidence. Building robots, sailboats and pulleys also helps students see how to apply their learning to real-world situations.

Davison loves sharing an example from that same fifth-grade class we learned about earlier, where their "hopper" project culminates in a race. She explains that a student who was often pulled out of class for intervention and extra support worked on a portion of the project alone because his partner was away.

"He was struggling with the coding and engineering components. But he kept trying, and we kept encouraging him. He was determined to get it done. And he did. When race day came, he was so excited to explain everything to his partner—and their hopper won third place out of the class!"

Davison notes the many great takeaways from that experience, including the practical skills learned and the hands-on opportunities for purposeful play. "Had the teacher decided to do this when this student was out of class, he would have missed a huge opportunity to feel that success, build those skills of perseverance and persistence, and be a leader in the classroom."

Breaking Down Barriers To STEM/STEAM

Dr. Faith Freeman is the former director of STEM for Guilford County Schools, a Title I district in North Carolina, where students of color are the majority. As a Black woman in a STEM career, Freeman knows the difficulties that Black students, particularly Black women, typically face going into traditional STEM fields. Purposeful play with LEGO Education supports her efforts to change that dynamic.

Through the district's work with two major local universities, she and her colleagues know that many industries want students to have more hands-on learning experience and be problem solvers who can work in groups to build and understand how things work.

"And with these LEGO Education kits, it's not just the building part,” Freeman observes. “It's the collaboration with fellow students, problem-solving and prototyping. Building something might be the end result, but everything before that prepares them for college and the workforce."

She also knows that the district's students sometimes see STEAM subjects as scary. But adding LEGO Education sets to classrooms turns fear into fun. "Having this joyful learning experience is important because they can see themselves later on engaging in it. It increases their confidence, and they realize, ‘This isn't scary. I can do this.’"

Embedding STEAM Across the Curriculum

Thanks to their creativity and the LEGO Education STEAM lessons, teachers at both Guilford and Redlands Unified were able to slide STEAM into other curriculum areas.

Davison tells of a teacher who, one day, realized that she could extend her class LEGO Education projects into writing assignments. From there, she started including team-building projects as part of her social-emotional learning lessons and even asked students to use their creations in stop-motion videos to work on storytelling. "After two years of teaching in a pandemic, it was the first time she felt like she finally got to be creative in her lesson design again, using something already motivating her students. Suddenly, she said she felt like a teacher again," marvels Davison.

Freeman sees a similar trend in her district, as teachers experiment with incorporating STEAM into other curriculum areas. "A lot of the time, education and content are in silos—ELA, math, social studies, science—but that's not how the world works," she explains. "Teachers are embedding STEAM across content areas because STEAM is a way of thinking. It's a way of problem-solving. So, connecting building into an ELA class shows students how they can use these STEAM practices across every part of their lives, not just in their science class."

Learning that Sticks

All of this adds up to learning that sticks, helping students gain the skills they need to succeed in the world. Nash captures this idea well: "What experiences are we giving students that they're going to remember? These playful learning experiences will make that information stick, help them use that skill in a way they maybe didn't before, remember it and use it again."

Pro Tips

Dr. Nash’s Tips for Teachers:

  • Don’t be afraid to get started - Each LEGO Education set is designed to support the teacher with lessons and guidance. All lessons are freely available: Easy to Use STEAM Lesson Plans for All Ages | LEGO® Education
  • Be a learner with your students - As the teacher, you often feel like you need to be ready to answer all student questions and know how to do everything the students will do. Allow students to take the lead and discover their own answers. The solutions they find will amaze you.
  • Seek like minds - The lessons provided by LEGO Education are just the starting point. The learning is limitless. Take advantage of connecting with other educators in our LEGO® Education Community.

Davison's Tips for Teachers:

  • You don't need to know coding - If you're a teacher who doesn't know much (or anything) about coding, that's okay. You can learn along with the students. You're going to notice that it's very student-driven. And you'll just be the facilitator.
  • Include all your students - Open the opportunity to use LEGO Education with all your kids, and you'll be surprised at how it benefits everyone, including those who need behavior or learning support.
  • Try it with a partner - Teachers should pair up when they bring LEGO Education solutions into their classrooms. Having someone you can bounce ideas off, especially for those classroom management pieces, is the best way to start.

Dr. Freeman’s Tips for Education Leaders:

  • Offer support - Provide consistent and standards-based professional learning for teachers and school support staff.
  • Don’t rush it - Encourage teachers to play with the LEGO sets before they begin teaching with them. This gives teachers the opportunity to feel comfortable with the sets before they engage with students.
  • Encourage fun!!! - Tell teachers to have fun. This is an opportunity for both teachers and students to engage in hands-on activities while learning state-supported standards.
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