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Playful learning is everywhere

Science and communities offer opportunities too 

All districts — Play is the work of classrooms throughout the world, and the science behind playful learning is solid. 

In Chile, playing games to learn math was shown by research to increase academic performance in young learners. In Minnesota, middle school girls are learning math through figure skating. And in Dallas, Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde pushes for less test prep and more joy in classrooms. 

Dallas is also participating in Active Playful Learning (APL), a research grant I am involved in and funded by none other than the playmasters themselves, the LEGO Foundation. APL is bringing the opportunity for “joyful teaching and deeper learning” to classrooms in four states. 

Creative Learning Opportunities  

Closer to home, joy and playful learning are everywhere — both inside and outside Kent County classrooms.

The Grand Rapids Art Museum just debuted a Creative Learning Center, accessible to all for self-guided exploration and scheduled school groups. The Grand Rapids Public Museum, in addition to classes onsite, offers at-home resources to play and learn from. Students and families can explore digital discovery kits, take virtual scavenger hunts of museum collections, and download fanciful coloring pages. 

‘Experiential excursions inspired our imaginations and connected us to bigger ideas.’

— Gayle DeBruyn, KCAD professor and sustainability officer

For the littlest learners, Grand Rapids Community College provides Play and Learn GRCC, playgroups for children 0-5 hosted at local libraries and schools. A partnership with First Steps Kent and funded by the Ready by Five Early Childhood Millage approved by Kent County voters in 2018, Play and Learn also provides free monthly packets of learning-based play materials to parents and their children.     

For high-schoolers, Kendall College of Art and Design (KCAD) sponsors the Wege Prize High School Collaborative Studio. This summer, 14 students came together to, well, have fun while doing the very serious work of “building a better future for people and the planet.” 

Grand Rapids Public Museum High School student Dani Ferratt from Team Smarter relaxes before presenting at the Wege Prize Collaborative Studio workshop

I spoke to Dani Ferratt, a Grand Rapids Public Museum High School junior, as he hung out before the event began. And I mean that literally. He reclined in a hammock and finished off a soda as he described to me the incredibly complex design proposal his team had created to recycle polyester clothing and “build a circular economy and stop the waste of finite resources.” 

Swaying as he spoke, he easily recalled statistics related to his team “Smarter’s” project goals, quoting community members they had interviewed and referencing other efforts to recycle clothing. Deep learning all around.  

Another Wege Prize team named itself “Barbies + Ken,” riffing off the blockbuster movie. They dressed the part in pink as they made their presentation about extending the lifespan of wind turbines by repurposing them into pedestrian bridges. 

Play to Grow Your World

Their presentation, and those of the “Slumber Squad” (recycled mattresses) and “Smarter,” were reviewed by a team of industry and education leaders who offered ideas to extend and execute the solutions. It was serious — yet fun — business, full of personal stories and creative ideas.

Gayle DeBruyn, a KCAD professor and sustainability officer, reflected on her own learning experiences as a young person in Girl Scouts. She mentioned that making connections to “subject matter experts in their ‘habitats’ not only outside, but also in offices, manufacturing, and culinary settings,” stuck with her.

“These experiential excursions inspired our imaginations and connected us to bigger ideas,” she said.

In other words, “sticky learning” can stick with a child even as she grows into a university professor — and teaches sticky lessons to more young learners.  

Audrey Bergquist of Grand Rapids Community COllege hands out free packets of playful learning materials at the Kent District Library Grandville Branch
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Carol Lautenbach
Carol Lautenbach
Carol Lautenbach is a reporter and columnist for School News Network. She has been a writer since second grade when her semi-autobiographical story, "The Magic Pencil," earned her a shiny Kennedy half-dollar in a metro-Detroit contest. For three wonderful decades, Carol served Godfrey-Lee Public Schools in a variety of teaching and administrative roles. In her current work as a consultant and at SNN, she continues to be part of telling the story of the great promise of public education. Carol has also written for The Alan Review, The Rapidian and Midwest Living, and is co-author of the book, “Making Schools Work: Bringing the Science of Learning to Joyful Classroom Practice.” She loves to not cook, and she keeps her bag packed for art, outdoor and writing adventures.


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