Instead of the usual lesson drills and worksheets, Raee Yeoh taught English in a high-needs school through immersive learning experiences like thematic escape rooms and interactive murder mysteries. In this piece, he shares 5 tips for any teacher looking to try play-based learning in the classroom for the first time.
Have you ever been to KidZania? Or maybe you’ve heard of it from friends with young children? It’s the popular family-themed entertainment centre where children have the chance to role-play and explore various professions. The interactive environment is designed to resemble a miniature city, complete with buildings, streets, and vehicles. There, children can participate in various activities and earn currency called "kidZos". They then use the kidZos to buy goods or services within the KidZania economy. This is a unique model which helps children learn more about the world of work, financial literacy and model citizenship - all while having fun through play!
This idea that ‘play’ can inspire children to explore new ideas and concepts isn’t new in the education sphere. For example, the Lego Foundation has studied the benefits of learning through play for children for many years. In their research, they found that learning through play helps children develop important cognitive skills like creativity and problem-solving skills. It also enhances their social skills, builds resilience and helps them develop a love for learning - attributes that help them to become lifelong learners. And yet, beyond the phase of early childhood, teachers are often not expected to make ‘play’ a core component of the learning experience in the classroom. This means that play-based learning could be unfamiliar territory for many teachers.
To understand how one might get started with play-based learning, I sat down to interview Raee Yeoh, a senior programme manager for Pemimpin GSL and former Teach For Malaysia fellow in a high needs school in Miri, Sarawak. Raee gained online coverage for his creative lessons. Instead of the usual lesson drills and worksheets, he taught English through immersive learning experiences like thematic escape rooms and interactive murder mysteries. By giving his students a fun, low-stakes setting to practise English, he was able to build their confidence in using a language that many of them had little exposure to.
The result of which has been phenomenal. Students who were initially not interested in attending English classes were now actively anticipating future classes. They even started providing suggestions of things they would like to explore.
“Play-based learning brings different perspectives into the classroom and helps to engage students with different learning styles,” says Raee. Thus, as a celebrated educator who has given play-based learning a try in his classroom, we asked Raee to share 5 tips for any teacher looking to give the approach a try for the first time.
How well do you know and understand the learning needs of your students? Observe what it is that your students need the most help in. Do they need help mastering a specific learning objective? Or do they need help developing their ability to think critically and creatively in general? Questions like these can help kickstart the creative ideation process of planning a play-based learning experience.
“Creating a play-based lesson shouldn’t be driven by the self-interest of the teacher alone,” says Raee. It must always be anchored to an understanding that any lesson created is done to help students address a learning need they have. It is only by understanding the needs of the students well can an educator plan to do play-based learning at all.
For example, Raee reflected on how the inspiration behind his viral murder mystery class was born out of the need to help his students develop their ability to make inferences from texts. Noticing how the steps of reasoning involved are similar to the investigative process a detective would take when solving clues, he created an opportunity for his students to hone their inferencing skills in a fun way. The idea is to build the mode of delivery around the learning need identified and not the other way around. A clear purpose helps to ensure that the lesson would not only be enjoyable but effective for students!
Not everyone needs to do a murder mystery in class! Performing arts is what Raee shares he enjoys best but this may not be true for everyone. He is careful to stress the importance of teachers choosing a medium of delivery that they are most comfortable with and would personally enjoy. As an example, Raee told the story of a fellow educator, he knew from the same school who did a simple water cycle in a bag experiment to showcase how rain is formed to her students. Her students loved the experiment so much they continued to share and talk about how much they enjoyed the lesson!
Although the lesson wasn’t as flashy or as theatrical as a murder mystery, it helped students to visualise the water cycle well. It also helped them make a connection to what they were learning in an interesting way. Like the previous point, it’s more important to understand your students well and what they would like best and then adapt that to a mode of delivery you would enjoy too. There is no one-size-fits-all approach – play-based learning is all about finding an approach that suits you best!
Play-based learning is all about teachers AND students having fun together! It isn’t just about creating fun experiences for your students; it’s about creating experiences that you would enjoy in the classroom too! What is it that you enjoy doing? Use that as an inspiration when designing lessons for your students too.
It is just as important for teachers to enjoy the lesson as much as students.
When teachers are passionate and enthusiastic about a lesson, this makes students more engaged with the lesson as well. For example, Raee shared how he often created buzz for a lesson by telling his students how he was just as excited as they were for an upcoming lesson. This way, the excitement and enjoyment are shared. The classroom doesn’t become a place of transmission alone; it is one where both teacher and student share mutually enjoyable experiences together!
Who can you invite into your classroom? “As educators, we play a role to expose students to different perspectives,” says Raee. There are benefits to widening the circle of people we know beyond the educational sphere. This way, we can share a more diverse range of experiences with our students. Whether it is friends in different occupations or the school gardeners and cleaners, Raee stressed how everyone has an insight that can help expand the worldview of students on a topic.
For example, he reflected on how he once devised a lesson on caring for the Earth where he encouraged students to hear firsthand from the school cleaners on the implications of an issue like littering. The experience helped students to develop an appreciation for the work that goes behind proper waste management and the importance of looking after the environment.
Expanding on this idea, teachers can also invite practitioners from other fields like doctors, engineers or architects - there is really no limit to who you can invite to the classroom. This way, we can help bridge the difference between what students are learning and the real world. And so to quote Raee, “Speak to more people,” as that could make all the difference in helping to make your lesson a more meaningful one for students!
The world becomes their classroom and the people within it are teachers, students can learn from.
As you’re trying these tips, remember that not everything will work well on the first-go and that’s okay. Raee shared how his own experience with play-based learning was one filled with trial and error. Trying something new and going beyond the “default mode” of teaching means that everything is going to be part of a process of discovery for both teachers and students.
“When things don’t happen the way we expect, it is an opportunity to grow and reflect together,” says Raee. For example, he recounted an incident where his students didn’t return to class at the agreed upon time after he had given them the opportunity to roam the school grounds. As a result, he was forced to cancel the remainder of the lesson he had planned. He used that incident as an opportunity for the class to do a group reflection on what can be done better in future.
Together, they realigned on expectations of what needed to be improved before a playful learning experience can be carried out in its entirety. From there, students learn that if they would like to learn in a fun and unconventional way, they would also need to cooperate and be accountable for their participation in the lesson for it to succeed. Looking back, Raee shared how those moments of ‘failures’ actually turned into points of learning that laid the foundation for him to continue exploring fun and creative ways to deliver his lessons. So the next time a lesson doesn’t pan out as it should, don’t fret, Cikgu. Remember, that play-based learning is all about allowing for pockets of experimentation!
Taking inspiration from Raee’s journey with play-based learning, we hope that this article will encourage you to start exploring play-based learning in your classroom today. Unlock a more joyful and meaningful world of learning by giving the tips above a try. And if you’re hungry for more ways you can invite joy into your classroom, access our HEART Course here. In Session E: Enjoy What You Do And Who You Do It With, we explore the concept of learning through play with experts from different fields to find new ways educators can recreate learning experiences for students by making joy a focus in the learning process!