Play, Creativity, and Meaning in the College Classroom

At all levels of learning, meaningful work is outcome of an environment that supports students as they solve new and hard problems, work together as a cohort, and connect their learning to life. This sort of environment is not only necessary for students to thrive, but also faculty.

In our series in early 2020, faculty across campus shared their approaches to creating a meaningful environment. While methods varied by discipline, the foundational pedagogy was remarkably similar and can be adapted to any class.

During March 2020 and a switch to remote instruction, fostering joy, creativity, and meaning became more challenging. As we become more accustomed to our new world of mixed modality teaching, hopefully there will be more mental space to return to a space where we are all more joyous about teaching and learning.

The ideas on this page are collected from workshops during the Spring 2020 semester:

Workshop overviews

What does play look like in college?

  • Students take ownership of their work.
  • Students have the opportunity to be creative and make choices.
  • The work is accessible (low bar, high ceiling).
  • There are opportunities for collaboration.
  • The problems are real-world and/or constructed.
  • Assignments encourage adaptation of material, and use nontraditional modalities.
  • Performance is involved
  • Time is flexible so that the work takes the time it needs.
  • Work connects to ongoing content, and help students work into the right mindset.
  • The environment fosters levity related to mistakes.
  • Failure is a tool.
  • Every student feels like they are valued.

  • Notice and wonder
  • Which one doesn't belong?
  • Number talks
  • Add in an art component

How do we promote deep learning?

  • Keep the classwork experiential
  • Design activities that are accessible (low bar, high ceiling) and self-levelling
  • Access and model different types of thinking
  • Include art!
  • Make the work clearly applicable to each student and the real world
  • Encourage adaptation of material, and use nontraditional modalities
  • Include group engagement
  • Model humbleness
  • Allow time for story-telling about personal experience
  • Value diverse thinking
  • Learn about each student

How do games motivate students to learn?

Games foster an atmosphere in which students want to learn because they:

  • Build community
  • Teach students how to interact face-to-face, including with new people
  • Compete with addictive technology; makes learning as engaging as addictive technology
  • Encourage metacognition: students make connections, think in different ways, apply information, become invested in the material
  • Teach resilience
  • Reconnect learning to enjoyment, to joy
  • Offer practice without lasting negative consequences
  • Reduce fear of failure, and strength in the face of failure

  • There is not usually a one-to-one correspondence between a game and a classroom objective. Different games teach a set of skills.
  • Games can be modified to fit your class
  • Email Louis if  you'd like to talk about how to adapt a game into your class.

  • History - Timeline, Wits and Wagers
  • Math - Poison, Can't Stop, Machi Koro
  • Logic - Mr. Jack
  • Spatial Skill - Hey, That's my Fish!, Ticket to Ride
  • Deal Making - I'm the Boss, Catan
  • Vocabulary - Bananagrams, Codenames, Letter Jam
  • Communication - Ultimate Werewolf, Pandemic
  • Creativity - Dixit, Just One
  • Organization - Concept
  • Pattern Recognition - Quirkle
  • Geography - Powergrid, Terra

Educational practices have often treated learning as a chore students must suffer through. However, by introducing playful activities into the lesson plan, teachers can increase student engagement and focus. Join Dr. Louis Sylvester as he discusses methods for introducing various types of games and puzzles into the learning process. Join the discussion on how we can Increase student joy and creativity in the classroom without losing any educational value.

  • Boardgame Geek -  a web database that contains information on every tabletop game ever, including reviews, videos, player aid files, rules clarifications, and forum discussions.
  • Dicetower - a podcast/video review website that produces weekly, up-to-date information on new games and favorite games.
  • Watch-it-played channel on Youtube

Common themes

Empower your students by:

  • designing activities that are accessible, with a low bar and high ceiling.
  • fostering resilience through low stakes assignments and activities; practice failure.
  • providing opportunities for students to be creative and have choice in their assignments.
  • allow time for students to tell their stories.
  • model desirable attitudes: humor, humbleness, forgiveness, diplomacy.

Motivate your students by:

  • providing opportunities and guidance for productive collaboration and community building.
  • designing assignments and activities that have clear application.
  • make class experiential.

Surprise students by:

  • including art everywhere.
  • modelling and supporting different types of thinking, and doing.
  • reconnect learning with joy and sometimes fun.