Schools Ditch The Classroom To Put Play Back In Education

At the PlayMaker school, don’t be surprised to find kids in a workshop or playing a game, just not in front of a chalkboard. It’s part of a new movement that is attempting to make education more fun–and work better.

Schools Ditch The Classroom To Put Play Back In Education
Children via Shutterstock

Perhaps play is not the opposite of work, but synonymous with it.


This theory is emerging from a growing body of scientific evidence, reviewed here by the University of Georgia, showing education is not the same as disinterested drudgery: For children and adults, “play is an important mediator for learning and socialization throughout life.”

PlayMaker school in Santa Monica, California is one of the first to redesign every aspect of the classroom putting that research to the test. The playful experiment in education, opening its doors to 36 sixth graders in September, is dead serious about teaching science, math, and engineering to a generation of U.S. students that is falling far behind those of other nations (we now rank 25th among 34 countries in math and science according to a 2009 study).

Backed by philanthropies such as the Gates Foundation, and the product of years of research by the University of Southern California’s GameDesk Institute, the PlayMaker school is taking a tiny fraction of America’s children on a radically different journey in education, and hopes to spread its techniques around the world.

PlayMaker is essentially a choose-your-own-adventure school centered on an interest-driven curriculum. Although it teaches science and engineering, its students discover answers after receiving the right materials and context to find them, rather than answers prepared in textbooks. A fraction of the “classrooms” are traditional desk-and-chalkboard versions: digital sandboxes, software games, and workshops with drills and sawdust are common. 

When the school year starts, PlayMaker students must chart their own curriculum. Known as Adventure Maps, these charts are filled with “science graffiti, historical time travel, ecology board games, and convection sandbox[es],” so students can trace their interests and progress while meeting state and national standards, as well as GameDesk’s own criteria such as systems thinking and problem solving, says PlayMaker.

The curriculum is where PlayMaker distinguishes itself. Subjects are not presented as abstract problems, but as projects, puzzles, and challenges that require acquisition of new skills and knowledge to answer through four learning principles: play, making, discovery, and an interest-driven curriculum. For example, the Roller Coaster Creator module asks students to build a virtual roller coaster, physically assemble a model, and then verbalize kinetic and potential energy physics concepts. Life skills, such as self-regulated learning, that profoundly shape the course of one’s future are also emphasized (see the predictive power of the Marshmallow Test). On the first day of school, personalized character sheets map out progress in communication, critical thinking, design and engineering, and collaboration.


It all promises to be a bit messy, admits PlayMaker: “Innovation leaks oil.” By going open source (the school posts daily progress reports on Facebook, Twitter, and their website), it hopes “the community will learn as much from its mistakes as its success.”

It’s all part of a larger shift in the philosophy about learning. From the “Slumdog Professor” (who installed computers in the slums of Delhi to show how adept kids are at teaching themselves) to the Hybrid X Team at West Philadelphia High School (teaching science and engineer by building electric vehicles), teachers and researchers scientists have been (re)discovering that many children are actually learning machines. Play is simply their textbook.

Now GameDesk, the research and game development group that began at the University of Southern California, is pushing ahead with its game curriculum vision through pilot programs in Los Angeles classrooms, software projects (such as Dojo, an emotion regulation game), and now dedicated schools such as PlayMaker.

Don’t have a PlayMaker in your neighborhood? GameDesk will teach you their “process and culture of curriculum development” to bring back to your community. It’s a safe bet it will probably be in the form of a game.

About the author

Michael is a science journalist and co-founder of Publet: a platform to build digital publications that work on every device with analytics that drive the bottom line. He writes for FastCompany, The Economist, Foreign Policy and others on science, economics, and the environment.