How are games, drama, and play a cognitive tool?

Games, drama, and play are often thought of as idle pleasures. Each, however, can “play” an important role in learning. They represent some of the more basic forms of social interaction; they are easy to engage in, and are usually pleasurable. These are not good reasons to avoid their use in teaching! Both involve a series of skills, including the ability to fit events into a narrative, and can enlarge students’ imaginative grasp of knowledge.

How can we employ games, drama, and play in teaching?

For examples click here.

Topic: Strategies for solving problems
Subject Area: Social Studies
Cognitive Tool: Games, Drama, and Play

Teachers can provide students with imaginary scenarios in which they must make certain decisions, assess the outcomes of their decisions and, possibly, deal with the consequences of their decisions. Students can design their own scenarios as well, acting out different outcomes based on the decisions they make in the activity. So, for example, students could act out scenarios depicting the interactions of European explorers and Aboriginal people. They could be given the task of trying to resolve conflict over land or resource use.

Topic: Measurements (width/depth/height)
Subject Area: Mathematics
Cognitive Tool: Games, Drama, and Play

Students can “play” with measurements in many ways. Two possible ideas would be to place a large, or small box—the size doesn’t matter—in the middle of the classroom and tell students there is something inside. Can they guess what it is? Their homework might be to list 10 items it could be. To do this, what information do they need? Alternatively the teacher could ask the student, how it would be possible to fit a car—a real one, not a toy one–into the palm of the human hand? (In this case, of course, we are thinking about distance and how size changes at increasing distances. Looking out now from my study window there are large buildings that fit quite nicely into the palm of my hand.)

Why do games, drama, and play engage our imaginations?

For more theortical background on this cognitive tool click here.

There are endless books and articles about the importance of play, so there is no need to repeat the wisdom about its educational uses you will find better expressed elsewhere. Briefly, though, in terms of “cognitive tools,” play can develop a wide array of symbolic functions. Perhaps most useful, continuing the discussion of gossip above, are those fantasy games children elaborate themselves: taking roles, spinning imaginary worlds, gossiping endlessly as they do so, making contractual arrangements about rules, and just having a really good time. One crucial value of play is the way it releases the mind to reflect back on the world. Again, it is a tool that develops that “meta-level” of thinking; it helps us to think about the world in a way freed from the constraints that the world’s normal forms, behavior, and everyday purposes imposes on us.

In play we also learn crucial capacities of self-control. Having taken on a role, we cannot respond except in that role. If we are playing a witch, we have to do evil, while at the same time recognizing it as evil. The subtlety and variety of developments that can take place as a result of giving much opportunity for play need no elaboration here. It is a cognitive tool of immense value and varied forms. Electronic “play,” which is working hard, to some people’s profit, to disrupt this immensely valuable negotiated play among children has been described as “fast food for the imagination.” Over-indulged—which doesn’t take much–it has similar effects on the arteries of the imagination.

In the imaginative classroom we will expect to see much more play than is currently common. The kind of play, whether board game, inventive, competitive, exploratory, puzzle-based, etc. will depend a lot on the topic being taught.