Academic Play

The role of academic play in meaning-making and identity formation

Let me open with an “assignment” from my Freshman Reading class:

Find a place in your journal entry where you think “you’re on to something.” Circle a word, phrase, or sentence and draw an arrow from your circle to the next place in your journal where you have blank paper. Focus on the idea you circled. Play with it! See where the writing takes you.

We call this meaning-making strategy “looping.” Below is an example for the story “The Bet” by Anton Chekhov. Note that the student set a personal goal for the entry at the top of the page: “I will stick to one idea longer and use evidence to support it.” Then she lists the written response strategies that might help her achieve that goal: freewrite, looping, 3 why’s, annotations, targets, quote/response, goal setting, and the grading rubric. As she writes, she chooses the strategy that she needs in the moment to help her “play” with the ideas in the text.

Journal entry from “The Bet”

She chooses to loop with the word “books” and the word “money” as she pushes herself to continue playing with ideas. Ultimately, she will bring her constructed understanding of this text to our discussion group.

Or consider this example of academic play from a science class:

As part of a final assessment in Freshman Physics, students are challenged to create a Rube Goldberg machine, an innovative contraption where an inventor develops a sophisticated, multi-step machine using a series of everyday objects to solve a simple problem. The students must create a machine that incorporates a minimum of ten moves to crack an egg. The classroom is alive with the sounds of discovery: laughter, groans, sighs, and cheers. They try on new ideas, laugh at their mistakes, and ultimately their physics “play” results in success when the egg cracks.

For academic play to be meaningful to the learner, it is absolutely essential for the teacher to lead students in reflection and discussion about the experience. Playing in a classroom without processing is time spent engaging in a fun activity without deep learning. Skilled teachers recognize that the play is the foundation for the deep reflections on the learning process. In the case of the freshman physics project, the importance of the activity lies not in the final machine the students create but in the final reflections about what they learned about physics and how they can connect that learning to future experiments both in and outside the classroom.

In the example from my classroom, the purpose of the play is two-fold. I want students to understand that meaning-making is messy; there is no direct route – no one answer nor is there one right way to get to an answer. Understanding a text (an event, a person) involves “playing with” multiple ideas before deciding on an interpretation. This is the type of academic “play” also provides a way for learners to try on being “smart” – especially those learners who have come to believe this identity is not attainable for them. “Play is also the medium of mastery, indeed of creation, of ourselves as human actors…through play our fancied selves become material” (Holland, et al. 2001).

Gladwell (2008) discusses research by university math professors that demonstrates that individuals who are successful in mathematics tend to “play” with math, searching through wrong answers until an eventual solution is discovered. Conversely, those who are unsuccessful in math tend to treat math as problems with quick answers. These individuals do not spend time playing with math but rather quickly move on to problems that they can quickly solve. For the successful math student, math then is often seen as a game; it is a puzzle or a riddle to be solved. For them, time spent studying math is thought to be more about time playing with math, and, thus, the learning process is both enjoyable and rewarding.

As adults, our students will continue this process of trying on, revising, and entering new roles in both their personal and professional lives. Depending upon your age, you may remember needing a safe context to try on and to play with becoming technologically literate. Students of a new language need space to play aloud with the sound of that language in order to move to fluency – in order to acquire the confidence to use the language in a public setting. Those of us who were corrected for every incorrect pronunciation and every missed accent mark may be reading this article as monolinguals.

Classrooms need to provide contexts, safe places, where students can play with “trying on” academic identity. This type of academic “play” allows students to think through possibilities, to push themselves beyond their current thinking, and to take the risks that allow them to grow as learners.


Gladwell, M. Outliers: The Story of Success. New York: Little, Brown, and Companay. 2008.

Holland, Dorothy, et al. Identity and Agency in Cultural Worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 2001.


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