Saturday, March 13, 2010

Adult Learning is Child's Play

You walk into a session on stress management and 15 adults are pelting one another with sponge balls. A closure activity for a vocational group consists of throwing a ball of string to participants standing in a circle, weaving a web of positive feedback about the course. A communications course has students tossing a smiley-faced hackey sack back and forth, granting group members permission to speak. And a team-building session involves half the group blindfolded and being verbally led around the outdoors by their partners.

Is this learning or playing? The answer is unequivocally…both! We learn through play. We may well have forgotten that as children play was our mainstay and thus, our learning. This never really changes; the games just became more sophisticated, involving more complex rules. I begin all my groups with the statement: "For learning to happen, it must be fun."

So, how do we make learning fun? How do we design a session that has our participants hungering for more? Integrating play effectively enables this. In our adult lives—so busy, so responsible, so bereft of play—we forget how to play, that spirit of play that gets us laughing hard, using our bodies, engaging in that high pitched squealing with delight so characteristic of children at play (Remember?), a fading body memory. Facilitator, Vivian Wiseman, did this beautifully and expertly during a Quebec Association for Adult Learning (QAAL) board planning session a few years back, as we introduced ourselves using a positive word beginning with the first letter of our first name while gesturing it out at the same time. The ensuing laughter energized the group while making us comfortable with each other.

We remember best what we do, and play provides this opportunity. When we engage in a learning activity that is further supported by some form of play, we remember the good feelings that it brought forth in us. At first, we might not want to join in the game. It feels funny, almost guilt-producing: should I be having this much fun? What if others see me having fun? What will I look like? I feel vulnerable like a child, self-conscious even and more aware of my reactions. These are normal responses, and you, as facilitator of playful learning, might not get everyone immediately into it, but that doesn't mean you should abandon the idea either. There will be some learners so uncomfortable with play that they may not participate. Try to draw them in carefully but without pushing too hard. Don't compromise the fun of the group trying to coax those who are reluctant. There will always be "children on the sidelines" who have trouble joining in. Acknowledge them and move on. They may come to see the benefit and eventually join the group.

How can you inject the spirit and joy of play into your adult learning sessions? Perhaps you teach math. A former colleague developed a math jeopardy game for her adult learners and they loved it. What about math bingo? If you teach language arts, what can you do to add the element of play? Have you ever thought about using puppetry, relaxation/meditation exercises, games, skits, plays, singing…the list goes on.

Howard Gardner talks about our multiple gifts, yet we must also realize that each of us also has multiple gifts of play. If we like to sing, why not sing that essay or brainstorming exercise? If we are good with nature and classifying nature, why not work in a group and produce a skit? When we have a special gift or talent, it often manifests itself as play for us. It doesn't even feel like work. So we bring to the learning activity a sense of play because the learning is viewed as fun.

I love walking around my classroom, noisy and busy with laughing adults at play, stopping at a particularly engaged and jovial group and saying: "You're having way too much fun here! Are you sure that you're learning?" The answer is often a clear and resounding "Yes!" as their faces beam. The end result always amazes and delights me for I know that these learners are learning by doing and by playing. And for a brief time, I forget that I am among adults. For a brief moment it feels like a room full of children in grown-up bodies, expressing ourselves as we were meant to.

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