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Student-led Play

Naomi de la Tour

The students are holding the chairs they’ve just picked up from the stacks against the wall, but they’re not moving. I’m standing at the side of room near a corner, my hands in my pockets, watching them. A couple of minutes ago, I asked if we should start the workshop. They agreed it was time and asked first if they should sit down and then if they should get chairs. Sure; I responded to both questions with what I hoped was a friendly shrug. Go ahead if you want to. But in this Open Space Studio there aren’t many clues as to the norms of the space. And they look uncomfortable as they glance at each other, trying to work out where to place themselves without any direction from me. One of them puts a chair a few metres away from me, pointing towards me, and looks at me as if for reassurance. I don’t react and slowly the others follow his lead. In this room, large and almost empty except for the stacked chairs and the Dark Would materials I’ve piled against one wall, the students form a neat, compact line in front of me.

The students are from Engineers Without Borders - Warwick, a student society which over the last year has been wading through university processes and committees as they’ve attempted to bring about the necessary collaborations, approval and funding for the building of a straw-bale eco-centre on campus. Over the last couple of months I’ve been working with them on the pedagogical side of their project, supporting them in thinking about the ways they’ve been learning during the processes they’ve been engaging with and how they could share that learning with their peers and the wider university. They’ve invited me here today to talk to them about the relationship between space, environment and learning. My plan is not to ‘give a talk’. I’m hoping to achieve something playful, experiential and therefore - hopefully - transformative in the two hours we’ve got to work together.

The students are looking at me silently and invitingly. They seem more relaxed now they’ve created some expectations for the space. I’m intrigued. Of all the possible ways they could have chosen to place themselves, they are sitting in the most traditional way they could have achieved in this blank canvas of a room. I go and get myself a chair, place it where I was standing, sit down and ask them why they have arranged themselves in the way they have. A couple of them seem taken aback. One of them shrugs and smiles as if the answer is too obvious and I’m trying to trick him. Because you’re the teacher, one answers. But I’m the teacher whether you sit like this or not, I say. So we can hear you and see you, another replies. The room is large, but not so large you wouldn’t be able to engage with me if you sat elsewhere, I respond.They appear surprised by my questions at first and explain their actions by talking about their expectations and experiences as students and a desire to not undermine or intrude upon the hierarchy that exists between them as students and me as their teacher. What are the implications of this seating arrangement, I ask. What does it suggest your roles are as students? What does it imply learning is? That we’re here to be broadcast at, one responds. That we’re just here to receive information. But, I say, I’ve been told by many students that they want to be included in the processes of learning, and there’s evidence for that in the literature too. If sitting like this puts you in a passive position, being broadcast at, why did you arrange yourselves like that just now? I guess it’s what feels normal for us. And if it facilitates broadcast learning, what kinds of learning might it make more difficult to achieve for you? Learning through experiencing things, trying things out, reflecting, thinking for ourselves, come the responses. And now? After this conversation do you want to take the opportunity to arrange the chairs any differently? The students lean forward and look at each other. Shall we sit in a circle, one of them asks. That way we’re including all of us in the discussion. They move the chairs and include me in the circle. How does that feel now, I ask. Any different? Better, one of them replies; I think it’s easier to talk and listen to each other.

Does this instance belong here in this online playbox? Is it an example of play, let alone student-led play? Initially the play - if it can be described in that way - was mine as I used my authority as the teacher in the room to make the hierarchies and norms of the space visible and therefore changeable. The students themselves were not included as active ‘players’ in the game. However, after we discussed the implications of the decision they had made in placing their chairs, the game I had been playing became visible and in a sense they were able to join the game. When I asked them if they want to take the opportunity to move their chairs again, they were invited to play. In the small act of arranging the chairs differently the students ‘played’ with the rules and expectations in the room. If we are defining play as an act or behaviour which engages with norms and boundaries [reference to look up] then because of the context and scaffolding this unassuming one minute activity is an example of students playing and acts as a stepping stone towards the more student-led, unguided play I have planned for the rest of the workshop.

OK, I say; we’ve still got an hour. I point towards the Dark Would resources piled at the side of the room. Are we going to be making dens, one of them asks. Well what about, I say, given everything we’ve just talked about, if you were to use that to make your ideal teaching space? What would it be like? You’ve got an hour to build it.

I leave them to play and confine myself to filming the group as they discuss, negotiate and build the different learning environments they want to include in their space. There are pods for individual reflection and concentration, a whiteboard area in which one person at a time could share ideas to a group sat on cushions on the floor, there’s a craft area filled with lego, paints, felt pens, and an outdoor area in which to think, a space for discussion and collaboration, a space to put ideas if you don’t know what to do with them, so they might influence or inspire someone else in their thinking. Once they’re done, I invite them to use the space to learn something, and they choose to explore the branding of their society, exploring the development of meaning through their branding.

In this online playbox and in our work over the last two years, we have begun to explore different aspects of play in relation to learning and the Dark Would installation and event included a number of opportunities for students to engage in learning through student-led play. As we have said elsewhere, we designed a landscape which participants could choose how to explore and play within. Asking students to design their own learning space using the same resources as we’d used earlier was a further step towards giving them the opportunity to lead their own play but in this case it was still a task designed by a teacher. They led the play but they had been given the game.

How might the concept develop further beyond the point of student-led play towards student-designed play in the classroom? There has been much written on the subject of student-designed games (see for example the work of Peter Hastie on the teaching of physical education in schools, or the teaching of children to design and programme their own computer games or in the use of Minecraft in the classroom) but we are curious to see how student-designed play as a related but distinct concept might facilitate active, transformative learning. We have already seen some examples of it in some of the student-devised assessments produced for the IATL module Applied Imagination: one student curated her identity in a room by exhibiting objects from her life and invited others to explore, ask questions, and listen to stories about her relationship with the object while drinking jasmine tea with her; another designed a board to stimulate the imaginations of children with learning disabilities; a third asked me, as his tutor, to come up with creative ways of using a paperclip immediately after watching each of three films - a pleasant one, a neutral one, and one designed to produce extreme disgust reactions in me the viewer. In all these examples, students were the designers and creators of the opportunities to play. The teachers were essential in helping to develop the theoretical underpinning and knowledge base from which the students drew. As with any pedagogical approach, it would need to be used judiciously. But from what we have seen so far it has the potential to offer a further means of deepening and developing student learning.

In the work with the Engineers Without Borders students, I learned a great deal about how they, as students, engage with space and what they’re looking for from learning experiences. With the support of teachers, giving students the opportunity to draw from their own experiences in relation to learning by designing their own play has the potential, I suspect, to open up a rich seam of learning. I’ll be looking to incorporate it further into my teaching practice in the future.

IATL Funding

If you would like to explore the idea of student-led or student-designed play further, or if you wish to develop ideas you have encountered in this playbox, you may wish to apply for IATL funding.