Why We Play: Purposeful Play in the Classroom


By Karla Hilliard

I love watching my children play. I love watching them snap on their unicorn-horned rainbow mohawk bike helmets and hit the pavement with their bikes and scooters. I love watching the neighborhood gang assemble, all gangly and gap toothed. I love watching my long-haired kiddo wipe the sweat from her pretty brow while smearing fresh dirt across her forehead. And I love when the kids gather in my yard at dusk for an impromptu ice cream cone.

Sure, it beckons of summertime — that sweet season we are warmly approaching. But more so, it makes me consider this really, really important part of the lives of my children: play.

It’d be disingenuous if I didn’t admit to you that sometimes I have to nag my kids to get outside and play or to put down the screen and pick up a book. But that’s the way it goes, right? It’s my job as their mom to create these opportunities for play.

I think most of us would agree why play is foundational to our younger children. It allows them to take risks, problem solve, and explore the world around them without the immediate safety net of adults. I love watching the freedom play brings to my children.

Recently, at the first annual WV ELA state conference, I presented a session on Purposeful Play in the ELA Classroom. I played the hits — Musical Discussion, Play Doh & Poetry, the literary analysis Quickfire Challenge, and a couple more. (For the entire presentation, click here.)

And since I’ve returned from our conference and finished up the myriad tasks that awaited me back home, I’ve had a few weeks to reflect and think a bit more on Purposeful Play and why I feel so passionately, and honestly, sometimes so cussid, about ensuring my nearly grown-up students have an opportunity for play in our classroom. Sometimes, I just have to make them metaphorically “go outside.”

Why We Play

Because play…

  • Engages all levels of students.
  • Creates a safe space for risk-taking.
  • Provides flexible outcomes and multiple paths to success.
  • Enriches skills and provides scaffolding to difficult concepts.
  • Offers choice, which creates ownership and greater success.
  • Is joyful and builds classroom community.


How We Play

Like my children who are discovering the complexities of friendship, leadership, and problem solving through play, Purposeful Play develops essential academic skills for our students.

Here are the guiding questions I use to determine what play looks like in my AP Literature or English 10 or 11 classroom.

Does the activity…

  • Engage all learners?
  • Introduce, develop, or assess a necessary skill for the course?
  • Nurture curiosities about the content or skills?
  • Offer choice and varied paths to success?
  • Allow students to make meaning independent of the teacher?
  • Build relationships and improve classroom culture?


You can think of Purposeful Play as learning “activities.” But I like to call them “experiments.” It’s a small, geeky refinement, but it helps students make sense of the activity and flexibility of the learning goals.

So a class on author’s purpose and craft might go something like this:

“Alright, guys, let’s experiment.”

*Students glance from side to side, waiting in eager silence to play my reindeer games.

“Today we’re going to think about intransitive verb patterns. Sounds fun, eh? No? Ok. So, I need you to find a group of 4-5.”

“With your group, you’re going to pantomime a passage I provide to you. You’ll have one narrator, a few actors, and you can improv however you want. Ready? Ready!”

In this activity with my AP Literature class, I give each student a passage that is heavy on intransitive verb patterns like this passage from the story “Little Expressionless Animals” by David Foster Wallace…

It’s 1976. The sky is low and full of clouds. The grey clouds are bulbous and wrinkled and shiny. The sky looks cerebral. Under the sky is a field, in the wind. A pale highway runs beside the field. Lots of cars go by. One of the cars stops by the side of the highway. Two small children are brought out of the car by a young woman with a loose face. A man at the wheel of the car stares straight ahead. The children are silent and have very white skin. The woman carries a grocery bag full of something heavy. Her face hangs loose over the bag. She brings the bag and the white children to a wooden fencepost, by the field, by the highway. The children’s hands, which are small, are placed on the wooden post. The woman tells the children to touch the post until the car returns. She gets in the car and the car leaves. There is a cow in the field near the fence. The children touch the post. The wind blows. Lots of cars go by. They stay that way all day.

Each group is assigned a passage that reads similar to this, with lots of sentences like, “A man at the wheel of the car stares straight ahead.” Students collaborate, plan, practice, and perform.

Where it goes from here?

Each group acts out their passage while a narrator reads. What I plan for and anticipate are students exhibiting some level of inactivity or stillness like the intransitive verb. I hope for students to hear the repetition of the verbs patterns, the cadence of the sentences, and the stillness or inaction of the actors.

As each group reads and acts, I ask the rest of the class to keep track of their noticings. After each group has performed, we debrief. Students post their observations on the board and we begin to make meaning.

So, is this the long way around? Maybe. But does this Purposeful Play activity create space for curiosity and new understandings of rhetorical grammar? Yes. That’s the goal. And for my money, it’s far more challenging, engaging, and meaningful than me standing in front of the room and rolling out my favorite lecture on intransitive verb patterns.

When We Play  

I would be remiss if I didn’t admit: sometimes play is hard. Again, like young children, play can be challenging and frustrating, and sometimes, you’ll just want to take your toys and go home. There’s a reason why some kids go straight to their screens instead of their street. It’s far easier to swipe, click, and scroll in a virtual world than go out and live in the real one.

And sometimes that’s fine! The respite and solitude of screen time or any other solitary activity can be energizing. Sometimes I need to retreat into myself or screen for a few minutes and put my mind on neutral. But like all good things, in moderation as they say.

I look at Purposeful Play similarly. We need balance in our lives and in our classrooms.

So when do my students and I play?

We play…

  • When we’re bored
  • When we’re excited
  • When we’ve lost momentum
  • When we have momentum
  • When ideas or concepts seem confusing
  • When we’ve had a streak of “in your seat” time
  • When we need a change of pace
  • When it’s it’s awful, sad weather outside
  • When it’s beautiful and sunny outside
  • When it’s Monday and everyone is tired
  • When it’s Friday and everyone is hype
  • When it’s Wednesday and everyone just wants the week to be over


You get the idea. We play when we need to play. That’s the beauty and usefulness of Purposeful Play.

WVCTE is wondering…

How do you play in your classrooms?  I’d love to find out.  Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!