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Program Explores Ways Play Can Help Learning

Erika Beras
90.5 WESA

A group of teachers are standing in a loosely formulated circle. Some are squatting, some are balancing on one leg, all look like they are about to burst out laughing.

They’re playing a game called Ninja at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit in Homestead. The goal is to attack the other Ninjas in a counter-clockwise way. But they aren’t just playing — they are learning the game and how its applicable to what they do in their classrooms.

The teachers have been playing these games for the last few days – Ninja, The Human Pretzel, Simon Says and Marco Polo — and then dissecting and changing them in different ways to make them more engaging for their students.

"When they start modifying games, they become designers and they start to understand how to intervene into systems so they can make richer experiences," said Nancy Nowacek, director of mobile programs at the Institute of Play, a New York-based nonprofit that is leading these two weeks of workshops.

Nowacek said games are an important part of learning. When kids play games it's an intellectual and emotional experience for them. It can become so engaging they’ll do anything to move forward in a game.

That means solution-finding, looking at problems in different ways and watching for patterns other players may have. And then all of those skills can be applied to all aspects of life.

"Games are really great because they offer constant challenge towards their players so there is a kind of constant feedback that happens as people are playing games," Nowacek said. "They are not only engaged with the system of the game but with one another."

About a couple dozen teachers are taking part in the program. Among them is Miriam Klein, the librarian and English teacher at the Cornell School in Cornell. She said children are already playing, and the goal is to build on that.

"Of course kids are engaged all the time when they’re playing video games way more than when they are in the classroom — they also try to do better," she said. "They constantly come up against obstacles, and instead of giving up or saying it's too hard, they find problem-solving ways around it or ways to make themselves better, so I think just that drive to succeed is something that is really great about games."

Klein said she hasn’t always incorporated games often in her coursework. Sometimes she’ll do Bingo with vocabulary words or lead a scavenger hunt through the library. That might change now.

Nick Kaczmarek, a cultural literacy middle school teacher at the Environmental Charter School in Regent Square, said he does use games on a regular basis. It’s a good way to teach not only classroom lessons but also life lessons.

“I think if students can see these real world systems in the same light that they do the video game that they play when they go home and can see how they are connected via this framework, that they can really break down these systems, understand them from the inside out, and I think that’s a big part of learning understanding how systems in the world work," he said. 

Brian Waniewski, managing director of Institute of Play, has also led some of the sessions. He said every form of play is a form of risk, practice or experimentation.

"One of the interesting things about games for us is that they unlock a state of being known as play, and in play all sorts of magical things happen," he said. "People will take risks that they won't otherwise take in real life. They will try again and again at a problem that they would have otherwise failed at. They will do really difficult things and have fun doing that. So that state of play known as being is really important when you're trying to get kids and adults to learn."

The teachers will get to practice some of what they’ve learned this week next week at a summer camp held at Carnegie Mellon University.

Erika Beras (she/her) is a reporter and host for NPR's Planet Money podcast.