Why Play is Crucial in learning

It’s 2017 and I still come across learning environments where even with young children playing is regarded as the opposite of working and not to be entertained in a classroom. Of course, things have improved overall in Young Learners classrooms, helped a lot by the fabulous course books on offer, which come packed with games, songs, drama and even craft activities.

It has long been believed that play is a necessary part of life:

The healthy individual is someone who can work, play and love effectively

G. W. Allport

Pattern and Growth in Personality, 1961

And we can see arguments for it even in the 18th Century.

Teachers need to encourage free expression and natural playfulness…

Jean Jacques Rousseau, 1762

Jean Piaget said:

play leads to consolidation of newly learned behaviours… exposing the child to new experiences and new possibilities for dealing with the world

We encourage children to play with English

·        To make them feel comfortable

·        To help language be memorable

·        To practise language

·        To facilitate involvement

·        Because we recognise that language learning is affective as well as cognitive

·        It’s fun and motivating

But with teens and adults the game changes. We probably don’t play so much with our older students because of

·        Student expectations – their previous learning experiences have been serious and rigidly defined

·        Teacher expectations – we wear a different hat with our older students

·        The course book – there aren’t many games in exam preparation books, for example

·        Play lacks credibility

·        It’s regarded as the opposite of work

·        Play has been defined as trivial by a male-dominated society which emphasises the power of rational thought (Anning, 1991)

It won’t come as any surprise that I like to incorporate elements of play with my adult language learners including those studying Business English, Academic English and preparing for exams.

Below are a few of the activities that have proved particularly popular with my students over the years.


Write a question which will kick start a discussion. Cut it up into separate words. Place these words into a balloon. Use enough balloons so you have groups of no more than 6 students working together.

Blow up the balloons. Place them somewhere in the class with enough space for students to run up to them.

Ask each group to nominate a runner. When you give the signal, the runner has to go to their balloon and burst it without using their hands, gather up the pieces of paper from inside (you’ll have told them how many pieces of paper are in the balloon) and bring them back to the group, who rearrange the question and then start discussing it.

It’s a great way to inject some energy and fun into the start of the lesson.

Getting to know you

There is a limit to how many times students can ask each other the same personal questions.

So, this is what we do. I ask students to write down the following, not showing anyone around them what they write:

 l  A fruit

l  A vegetable

l  A number between 1 and 200

l  Your favourite movie star

l  How many pairs of shoes do you have?

l  What’s the first thing you do every morning?

Then I explain that these 6 things are actually their:

l  First name

l  Family name

l  Age

l  Spouse

l  Children

l  Job

I model the questions (What’s your name? How old are you? etc) with some of the students, write them on the board, drill them if necessary and ask the students to mingle and get to know each other!!

This is a great game because

·        It’s suitable for all ages (obviously tweak the questions to make the answers appropriate e.g. children can talk about their best friend or a hobby)

·        It’s scaffolded

·        All learners participate

·        As answers are surprising, listeners pay attention

·        Students practise vocabulary as well as question forms

·        Laughter promotes a sense of well-being, relaxation and alertness


I write about 25 words on the board, including a range of verbs, adjectives, nouns, pronouns etc. Like those below:

teenagers parents       radio   cows         coffee         politics

       a  in  on  an  to   we        their   I   sexy  green  fat  rich   quickly

          dancing        is     eat  was  say  think   the        tall     quickly

I ask students to work in pairs or small groups and write a one word sentence, using any word on the board; then a 2 word sentence; then a three and keep going till they have created the longest sentences they can.

This task is great for practising syntax and grammar as well as justifying the weirder suggestions.

The CSI Game

Either use flashcards stuck on the board or a projected image like this:

Explain that the students are actually all experts in solving crimes and must look carefully at the picture and come up with a theory of what crime has been committed and how.

But as they can never be sure they will be using modals of probability: can, could, might, must etc.

Add more details (e.g. a knife, wine bottle, blood stain, picture of a woman on the wall) to the picture one at a time and get more ideas.

Encourage students to incorporate all the clues into their theories and if they don’t use modals of probability, nudge them by asking ‘Are you sure?’


If learning is just serious it can become boring, uncreative and depersonalised and if it’s just fun, it can lack a language purpose. We need to make sure it’s SERIOUS FUN!

Further Reading:

Laughing Matters, Peter Medgyes, Cambridge University Press

The Excellence of Play, Janet R Moyles, McGraw-Hill

Play, Learning and Early Childhood Curriculum, Elizabeth Wood and Jane Attfield, Paul Chapman Publishing


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